Archive for March, 2009

A Jedi mind trick

March 27th, 2009 1 comment

When I was with the 48th Highlanders of Canada Military Band, I was occasionally called upon to perform the Act of Remembrance on trumpet. The Act consists of playing The Last Post, observing silence (or listening to a piper play a lament), then playing Reveille, or Rouse.

(here’s the sheet music, for those interested)

It can be a high-pressure gig, since a) it’s a solo, b) everybody in the crowd knows it, c) all around you is silent, and d) it’s only played at solemn occasions. So naturally, I had to get it right.

Once I didn’t get it right and oh, I got such a dirty look from an elderly woman. To whom I apologize. Sure, on that occasion, I had the chops, I could play the right notes in the right order, but my mind got the better of me. After that, I suppose I got it right just through practice and sheer concentration — which doesn’t make for a very artistic performance, but a technically accurate one.

However, near the end of my tenure with the band (of course), after some more practice and refinement, I finally hit upon a way to make sure I got the notes right every time:

Focus on a playing with beautiful tone.

Yep, once I focused on making the horn sound smooth, clear and pretty, the notes were right there. It wasn’t an issue any more.

Now for this to work, I had to have the chops, the foundation, and the practice before this little Jedi mind trick would work. But it did, and still does when I pick up the horn for less-solemn occasions.

How can this apply to Tai Chi and such things? It seems as if this trick releases the mind in some way and allows it to focus on something simpler, more … “heartful” seems to be the word that comes to mind. “Spiritual” or “engaging” might do. There’s more to it than just that, since practice is a spiral path, where the student needs to go back and forth between technique and “heart”. That would mean refining Tai Chi technique, then simply relaxing and enjoying the ride, then refining technique, and so on. In other words, it’s good to just enjoy it every now and then.

More practice?
More practice.

P.S. Apparently, The Last Post has words. I did not know that. Here they are, arranged in the cadence of the tune. The words are rather poignant, when you sing them with the melody:

Come home!
Come home!
The last post is sounding for you to hear.
All good soldiers know very well there is nothing to fear …
… while they do what is right, and forget all the worries they have met
in their duties through the year.
A soldier cannot always be great,
but he can be a gentleman and he can be a right good pal to his comrades in his squad.
So all you soldiers listen to this:
Deal fair by all and you’ll never be amiss.
Be Brave!
Be Just!
Be Honest and True … Men!

Categories: interdisciplinary, Zen-like stuff Tags:

Stop thinking or your brain will freeze like that!

March 13th, 2009 2 comments

I think too much.
(Maybe I also say “I think too much” too much.)

In classes past, while teaching me a move, Ben would say that I should stop thinking so much. Part of that admonishment stuck with me, but i also pushed back a bit, because I have this attachment to being clever … or to this image of myself as a clever person. But, in an attempt to follow Ben’s direction I would think less (and practise more), but only when doing that move. That class. Then I’d get all clever again, thinking of clever ways to find the “key” to another move, to discover the pattern linking it with other moves, the best way to describe it to someone else, and so on.

Then last night, on a visit to Doug’s class, we were discussing another student. Doug said to me “he’s too much in his head. Like you.”


Now we weren’t working on a move, we were just talking. So I had no alternative but to apply Doug’s statement (echoing Ben’s admonishments) to my entire Tai Chi and Lok Hup practice. Hey, probably my squash, too. So without an exit strategy where I could continue to be clever about whatever move we weren’t discussing, I had to actually consider the statement and reflect upon it more deeply.

Hopefully, with one of my last thoughts on the matter, here’s what came out of that:

Being clever won’t help me with Tai Chi.

In fact, it’s detrimental. For a number of reasons. When I think I’ve solved a problem through reason (“good for me!”), I don’t practice it to make it internal and natural, I move on to the next problem. Alternately, if a problem is difficult to solve through reason, I keep at it … using reason. “There must be a way to solve this!” Bottom line: I’m getting in the way. I’m slowing things down. Believe it or not, the natural pace of things may be faster than the pace when we intervene! So in my impatience, I’m actually making things more difficult.

Not very Zen. Nor Dao.

So, naturally, I felt chuffed when I figured this out. Oops. Bad Steve.

So what to do? Nothing? Ehhrrmmm … maybe not. How about: watch, listen, enjoy the activity, whether I improve or not. Listen to the body because I enjoy listening, not because it will help me improve. And I shouldn’t do this non-doing because I want to improve. That’s faking it, and is just propagating the original situation.

I have to really, really not care so much. Maybe that’s it. Take a holiday from thinking. Don’t use words. Don’t compare. Don’t try to make sense of it. Just sense. Maybe relax the jaw. Drool. Okay, no drool.


Categories: Lok Hup, repetition, Tai Chi, Zen-like stuff Tags:

How to play bass, by Ron Carter

March 7th, 2009 1 comment

I heard a great little story on JAZZ-FM this morning about Ron Carter, the great jazz bassist.

Apparently he was good friends with Bill Cosby, himself a jazz fan. During a visit to Cosby’s house, the comedian noticed Carter’s fingers and remarked, “all the bass players I know are always sanding their fingers to remove the calluses, but you have no calluses. How come?”

Carter replied, “that’s easy. I play correctly.”

Categories: interdisciplinary, jazz, Zen-like stuff Tags:

This modern life

March 5th, 2009 3 comments

On Wednesday, a friend and I met for lunch to catch up and hand off music for a band rehearsal. Eventually we got to talking about health, and once I had bored my friend with Tai Chi stories, I revealed my desire to squat. Yes, squat on my haunches like an aboriginal tracker. Like a little kid. Hey, a guy needs goals.

My friend’s take on the general western loss of mobility was basically “since we don’t really have any predators lurking about, we have no need to use our bodies in the manner to which they’ve evolved”. We sit at desks, drive cars, eat at restaurants.

We evolved to run, stand, squat, climb, fight, and all sorts of things we don’t do any more … as adults, anyway.

This we discussed in a restaurant.
Built by somebody else.
Sitting in chairs.
Eating sushi.
Caught and prepared by somebody else.


Categories: modern life Tags:

Repeat and Discover

March 3rd, 2009 1 comment

helixI think too much.

Maybe it’s because I want to figure things out, crack the code, that sort of thing. That’s a useful way of working if the point is to crack the code, or figure things out. But if I actually want to use that knowledge, well … I need to repeat. Practice. Once I get an answer, I need to apply it again and again until it sticks.

Learning a language is fertile ground for this attack. There are thousands of words to learn, grammar, pronunciation, patterns, and so on. Thousands of questions and answers. Xuesheng means student? Great! Next one! How about Japanese? Gakusei? Got it! 

This is all well and good, but as any language student knows, it’s not good enough if we actually want to use the language. We gotta practice. Immersion. Conversations. 

This is refine and repeat. We know what to do, but that’s just the beginning. Repetition locks it in, helps it flow more easily, facilitates improvisation, makes it our own … all that stuff. 

There’s another kind of practice: when a teacher shows you something, then you ask him how to do it and he advises you to “practise”.
But what do I practise? What I showed you. Relax.
How do I relax? Just practise.
When will I know if I’m doing it right? Practise. 
But what –? Oh, just shut up and practise.  

Unfortunately, this feels like practising blind. We’re uncomfortable with it because we don’t want to practise the wrong thing over and over. We have no map. No “metrics” as they say in business.

But we do have a goal, beyond one such as “relax”. It’s wu wei : non-doing. Mushin: no-mind. Effortlessness. To put it another way, we want to practise something until we get to the point where it becomes habit, natural, the thing we do when we don’t think. When we do a move “wrong”, it’s (generally) not bad or harmful, we’re just doing it the way we do it when we do it without thinking. Got that? The “wrong” way is habit, so we want the “right” way to be habit. We want to practise the new way until it becomes second nature. 

But wu-wei is difficult. There’s still an action involved, the thing that we are doing naturally. Do I focus away from the action, focus on the action, or focus on nothing?

I think we all know the answer to that one. <sigh>

Categories: repetition Tags: