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.

Sonic Sandbox topics I want to think and write about

There are a number of topics I want to write about related to Sonic Sandbox. Some of what I want to write about is about how Sonic Sandbox works. Some pieces will be about the theory behind the exercises/games I use. Some will cover my long terms plans. Some will lament (maybe even whinge) about my struggles in building Sonic Sandbox. Some will describe and reflect on my personal experiences. I’m using this post to provide an outline for topics I want to write about in the future within each of these subject headings. I will return to this post from time to time to update it as I think of new ideas or as I write some of the pieces, so I can add links.

How Sonic Sandbox works

  • The exercises
    • Meditation
    • Making sounds together without judging (toning)
    • Sustained sound with change through copying
    • Laughter “meditation”
    • Moving with our music
    • Sound mirroring
    • Sound infection
    • Name game
    • Drum circle
    • Call and response
    • Sound conversation
    • Life opera
  • Theoretical issues
    • What happens in our brains: the different ways we think
    • Characteristics of the sensate and conscious minds (feeling self and thinking self)
    • How sound creates connection
    • Consequences of connection
    • Authenticity or “speaking” from one’s feeling self
    • Eyes closed or open
    • The role of movement
    • Interaction types: group, dyad, solo
    • Rhythm, harmony, melody
    • How to teach listening
    • How to teach people to support each other
    • How to create safety
    • How the experience can be used in psychological recovery
    • How the experience can be used as a model for relationships in other areas of life
    • Supporting people to be safely transparent in as many aspects of life as possible — eliminating self-destructive shame/reducing the need for secrets/increasing tolerance for variation in human behavior
    • The survival value of cooperation, the need to appear to be someone others can cooperate with, and the consequences of diverging too far from your true self in order to appear to be someone others can cooperate with (homo-cooperability vs hetero-cooperability)
    • How Sonic Sandbox widens the range of hetero-cooperability through example and experience and how to create a wider range of hetero-cooperability in other aspects of life
  • Plans
    • Building a sustainable workshop
    • Expanding workshops to other areas
      • Using the workshop for team building in formal organizations
      • Teaching youngsters alternative ways to relate to each other
      • Giving music therapists additional tools
      • Rituals for community building
      • Aiding community problem solving
      • Personal growth
      • A mechanism useful for changing habits of thought and creating psychological wellness
    • The Sonic Sandbox Institute
    • Integration into life in many kinds of institutions and across cultures
  • Struggles
    • Marketing, oh marketing
    • I HATE Facebook (and don’t get me started about Twitter)
    • Doubting my business skills and my energy and focus
    • Finding allies and helpers
  • My musical experiences
    • Peak moments
    • Reflections on the last workshop (what it was like; what I learned)
    • Sonic Sandbox at conferences
    • The original testing ground Sonic Sandbox “Band” experiences
    • Me and my trumpet
    • Improvisation in the wild (typewriter story)
    • Music, mental dysfunction, and recovery

And…. we’re off!

DSC_7097My first official Sonic Sandbox Workshop is behind me. I rented space. I advertised. Hung up flyers. Got totally frustrated with the idiocy they call Facebook. Used my email lists. Tried to contact everybody I know, and even paid for some Facebook outreach. When they talk about targeted marketing on Facebook, I now know what they mean, because I tried to target my outreach.

We had a great time at the West Philly Suzuki Piano Studio. It’s a wonderful space. My son took some pictures and a video which I hope to post soon. Sometimes, even though I really believe in Sonic Sandbox, I’m amazed at how well it works. I look around at the group, and see the smiles on people’s faces and see how much they are into it and how free they are, and then I check in with myself, and even I’m not worrying about how things are going or whether I need to tweak something here or there, and I start relaxing and letting myself go, just like I created this for. I stop being facilitator; stop feeling like I’m always watchful, and trust the process and let myself go, because it’s working! You can sign up for it here.

I was hoping and predicting that, based on the response to my initial marketing, I’d have five to eight people there, but there were three. That means I still have lots of marketing to do. It’s not my favorite thing because of the struggles managing lists and of course, dealing with Facebook. Can anyone explain how Facebook managed to take over the world with such a non-intuitive, crappy interface? It is the very definition of kludge. You can barely say it works, and yet, it has taken over the world. One can only hope that the competitors in China or India or elsewhere will manage to establish roots in the US and show Facebook how things really should be.

The amazing thing is that with four of us, the energy was incredible! We did a kind of debriefing afterwards, because I wanted to know what people thought about both the workshop and my outreach, and the folks there were really helpful. Honestly, I don’t really remember what people said about the workshop itself, but my impression was that it really matters what I say to set up people’s expectations. When I say that we are here to support each other to freely express ourselves, people believe me and actually take that to be true — simply because that’s what we really want to do. Who wants to live constantly worrying about whether what they do is acceptable?

I think some people might fear that if we all just let loose, it’ll be chaos. The thing is, Sonic Sandbox isn’t chaos because of the emphasis on listening and copying. There’s space both to let loose and be all in with your energy, but also to be supportive and create a strong foundation for others to let loose. If we take turns, and share in the responsibility for caring for everyone else, what happens is not chaos. It’s beautiful, but with an authentic energy I haven’t really heard anywhere else.

The feedback I got about marketing was that the thirty-something generation is more of a “drop-in” generation. In uncertain times, it’s hard to make a commitment to ten sessions, knowing that you’ll probably not be able to make it sometimes. As a result, I think I’m going to open my sessions up to drop-ins.

I really want people to come regularly because in my experience, when we work with the same people again and again, and we practice regularly, we get to know each other better (which is mostly the point of these workshops) and we can take more risks and express ourselves ever more deeply. When people take risks, the music gets more and more incredible! When we know each other better, we can start to predict what others are going to do, and that anticipation means we are more in tune with the energy of the moment and everyone latches on to a new direction that the music takes more quickly and more powerfully.

Still, even without knowing each other, the workshop works well. I’ve taken it to several conferences now, including one international conference, and while my groups seem small to me (fifteen people at best), the energy people experience and the high they get from the work/play seems really deep.  I’m almost afraid to have a big group because I don’t know if it could be the  same — I’d have to learn how to break it into smaller groups, I think. But still, that would be a wonderful problem to have.

So I need help. I need help reaching out to more people in Philadelphia. I need help figuring out how to price the workshops in a way that makes it easier for people to participate, but also encourages people to make it a practice. Obviously, if I have people coming regularly, it generates more income for me, but I truly believe that practice is also going to make the impact these workshops have on individuals much stronger.

One suggestion at the confab after the workshop was that I could charge a regular individual workshop price (which is currently $25) and then offer people discounts if they are willing to pay in advance.

In any case, one person signed up for the ten sessions, and one person gave a donation, which covers my space rental for the month. I still have expenses related to marketing and instrument purchases that will take more income to cover. I share this because I want people to know where I’m at, financially. I also have expenses related to the conference attendance. So far, I’ve been able to get funding to cover my attendance at these conferences. I had thought that maybe they pay for presenters, but it turns out that’s not the case, but I feel like breaking even is a decent goal for me at the moment, since I do love this work.

In the works is a letter of inquiry for a grant proposal where this Foundation that is interested in supporting community-building arts work would do a documentary about Sonic Sandbox. If I get that, then people who participate would have a chance to have their participation filmed. I’m sure that for some that would be a great inducement to participate, although others might find that a bit scary. Ideally, I want to be able to find ways to help everyone be comfortable, and I hope I will always be open to suggestions to make the experience better and to meet people’s individual needs. That doesn’t mean I can succeed at all that, but I want to be open to feedback, and I think I will be, as long as it follows the Sonic Sandbox guidelines in terms of being supportive.

That’s a lot more news that I was expecting to impart when I sat down to write this. One more thing on my schedule is the iNAPS conference in Phoenix on October 16-18th. I’ll be doing a workshop there on the 16th, in case anyone will be there, too.

What happens at a Sonic Sandbox Improvisational Music Workshop?

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.