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.

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

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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.