Sonic Sandbox at Philly Maker Faire October 6, 2019

On Sunday, October 6th, we’ll be presenting a Sonic Sandbox music improvisation workshop at 11 am and the Sonic Sandbox Band will be performing at 3 PM at the Philly Maker Faire.

 

 

Maker Faire is a gathering of fascinating, curious people who enjoy learning and who love sharing what they can do. From engineers to artists to scientists to crafters, Maker Faire is a venue for these “makers” to show hobbies, experiments, projects.

We call it the Greatest Show (& Tell) on Earth – a family-friendly showcase of invention, creativity, and resourcefulness.

Glimpse the future and get inspired!

Sonic Sandbox is a process for releasing pent-up creativity.

Sonic Sandbox uses music to demonstrate techniques that can be applied in any form of collaboration.

We follow two simple rules:

  1. Make any sound you want
  2. Copy the sounds you like

These techniques make all kinds of collaborations work a lot better! Sonic Sandbox is for:

  • musicians who want to create new music;
  • any social group that wants to cooperate more effectively;
  • students who want to collaborate on projects;
  • businesses who want to leverage the creativity within the organization;

and don’t forget, it’s also for fun!

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?

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.

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.