Picture of people choosing musical instruments

Tibetan Mind Training in the Sandbox

I have met many of you at Shambhala meditation center, where I have been doing mind training at Monday Night Sangha. I’ve noticed a lot of connections between the Lojong (the Tibetan word for mind training) and the work I’ve been doing with Sonic Sandbox. I thought I’d share my thoughts about Monday’s Lojong slogan.

The most recent slogan at Monday Night Sangha (MNS) was “Be grateful to everyone.” This slogan is about acceptance. The gratefulness is for what we can learn from the impact another person’s actions has on us. I am reminded that we can only control our own actions. What we do has an impact on others, but we can’t control that impact in the same way we can control ourselves. We can influence others, but that’s not the same as control.

“Be grateful to everyone” is an attitude the Lojong suggests as a strategy for interactions with others. I think the main question is that since we have no control over others, what is the most useful way to interact with them? If we try to control them, we will inevitably have less of an influence than we want, and this can easily feel like failure. We’ll feel bad about ourselves. We’ll take responsibility for things that are outside our control. We’ll blame ourselves for not being good enough.

Does it help us to feel bad about ourselves? Does it help to feel ineffective? Like a failure?

On the other hand, if we acknowledge we have no control, and instead treat the actions of others as a force of nature — a kind of structure or boundary within our lives that we cannot violate, then we could cultivate another attitude. We could even be grateful. Grateful for what, though? Grateful for what this structure in our lives can teach us.

Do we seek to control gravity? Maybe, but if we do, we will fail. Should we feel bad about failing? Or can we learn from the experience? If we are grateful to gravity, then it is easier to learn about gravity and how it is an immutable force affecting our lives. We can’t do anything about gravity except learn to live with it the way it affects us. In doing so, we learn about gravity, and how it affects us and other things. We learn about the air and water and solid matter, all of which are attracted towards other masses by the force we call gravity. We can use this knowledge to make it possible to pursue our own agendas.

The same attitude can be cultivated towards other people. Other people are like forces of nature. They are themselves. They do what they do. We can be grateful to them, and learn to live with how their actions affect us. If we learn from each person, we can use this knowledge to make it possible to pursue our own agendas. If we keep on trying to deny other people and trying to make them into something other than what they are, it is the same as trying to turn gravity into something other than what it is. As we all know, that doesn’t work. That is like banging our heads against the wall and expecting the wall not to resist and not to hurt when we hit our heads against it. But if we accept the wall and are grateful to it, and accept our heads and skulls and nerves and are grateful to them, we may decide there’s little point in banging our heads against the wall.

So if we accept other people as they are, according to their established patterns of activity, we can learn from that. If we are grateful for what we learn, we will be better able to interact with them in ways that move us towards our own goals. We won’t try to change them. We’ll work with them, instead, using their patterns of behavior as best we can to help us, instead of trying to change their patterns, which, we know, will probably make them resist us.

In the Sonic Sandbox, we use sound and acceptance of what is in order to demonstrate this principle. Instead of trying to change people, by, say, judging them, and telling them the sound they are making is wrong or ineffective or not pretty, we simply accept whatever sounds they make. If we accept all sounds, then how can we pursue our own agendas? We are not in control. We can’t make anyone create a different sound than the one they are making. So how can we influence what is happening?

One way to influence what is happening is to be grateful for the sounds that others are making. How can we show our gratefulness? One way is to copy that sound. What happens when we copy the sound of someone else? When I ask people to reflect on the experience of being in the Sonic Sandbox, most people report feeling supported when other people copy them. They feel like leaders. They feel liked. Appreciated. Like others are grateful to them. This gives them a flush of pleasure and validation. And then what?

Being validated seems to encourage people to validate others. They get copied, and then they copy others, in return. The Sonic Sandbox can set up a positive feedback loop where people take turns supporting each other — being grateful to each other. What happens to the sounds people make when we are interested in each other and then show our gratefulness for what they do by copying them? Sounds converge. New things happen. A rhythm starts happening. A harmony happens. A sound texture happens. Maybe a melody happens. Sometimes everyone converges on the same thing. Sometimes different groups of people form, some doing a rhythm, others a harmony, and others a melody. Sometimes one person is off on their own while everyone else keeps a rhythm going. What happens? Music happens!

Sonic Sandbox is a live, interactive demonstration of many of the mind training ideas presented in the Lojong. Sonic Sandbox is also a fun, freeing experience where people can just be themselves without worry of judgment, and take joy in connecting sonically with others.

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.

Bump Trump to the Dump

Bump Trump to the Dump

Bump Trump to the dump

Trump won Indiana tonight, and it seems he has a clear path to the Republican Nomination. In honor of that, we created Bump Trump to the Dump. It’s a sort of bluesy piece. It reflects my fear that if Trump gets elected President, the economy will go to hell and a lot of people will get hurt. The rich, including Trump, will only get even richer, and the disparity between the rich and the poor will ascend to even higher levels. That’s destabilizing to the nation. Depressing. But the music is a lot more fun than that!

This piece is a good example of our process. You can hear how it developed out of a simple little conversation that sprang up after we heard the news about Indiana.

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.

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.