Sunday, October 5, 2008

Connecting the Dots: From Notes on Paper to 4D Sensing

   Many people think of dots on staff paper when they think of playing music. The evolution of representing musical ideas visually went hand-in-hand with the evolution of music in Europe, and now that tradition has influenced the entire world. Writing music down has made possible the incredible library of music from the last several hundred years.
   I learned to read music very early, from my mother, who is a piano teacher. There is really not much difference between reading language and reading music: you learn the letters, you start understanding them together in words, then phrases, and eventually you can read a novel, or you can read a symphony. You learn to see patterns of phrasing, to intuit the implied inflection and emotion, and to read "between the lines" when you have background information about the author and the time period. I am dealing with conventional Western (European-originated) notation here. There are people who have created alternative systems, which communicate directions for different concepts and processes. 
   In the Western system, the visual representation of music on a two-dimensional plane gives us certain information. For a given "note" there are usually symbols of pitch, relative time duration, and relative loudness. There are usually markings which indicate the shaping of the piece - how it changes in loudness and timing. Some composers include more detail about the expressive qualities of their music. But all of this is VERY little information about how a piece can be brought to life with imagination, because millions of subtle details go into a performance: changes in timing and timbre which would be extremely cumbersome to notate. And as more details accumulate on paper, the less freedom the performer has to interpret. The page communicates only a shorthand concept for a piece of music. There is a huge difference between seeing a recipe in a book and actually cooking it up and tasting it.
   From the performer's point of view, the notes on paper tell nothing about the physical process of making the sounds. This is why we as performers can get confused, distracted and derailed by reading and playing at the same time. We can become so involved in the act of reading and in the abstract conception of a work that we lose touch with what we are doing physically. We might not even be listening to the sound we are producing on our own instruments. We might get so tunnel-focused on reading that we are unaware of our fellow musicians, with whom we are supposed to be playing. How can we expand our awareness beyond the 2D world of dry dots on paper?
   Let me make it personal: I realize that I've been out of touch with my actual physical feeling while playing the violin. I have played for 35 years - professionally for about 22  of those - but there are certain things I still want to improve. I want to improve the continuity of my awareness in my performances. I want to improve my accuracy when shifting positions. I want to allow freer flow from imagination to actualization. Don't we as musicians all want these things?  The goal is: being more conscious, which means being more continuously WITHIN the action.
   It has to do with employing 3D sensing: feeling your physical shape changing as you play your instrument. And it has to do with staying awake during the unnamed, unrepresented time-spaces between the named locations we call "notes." Again, the instructions are - because we don't usually give attention to these things:
Feel your instrument with your sense of touch, and feel your movements through space in three dimensions.
Remain conscious (feeling, hearing, seeing) during the transitional times between the notes. With this it becomes 4D sensing, since time is the fourth dimension.

   The concept of a "note" has gained too much solidity, too much importance, because notes have a visual presence in front of us on a piece of paper. We validate them as "real" because we can see them. They have a measurable quantity of ink. But the dot represents only a temporary spot in a continuum of change. The dot represents a destination, a resting point, a beginning of a sound change. But the beginning of the note is only a small part of the story. Once the sound starts, it is already changing, going outward, morphing as you either stop suddenly or continue the movement which started it. It is resonating and reflecting against things, or it is going out into space and disappearing. Can we be aware of the continuum, not just the sound "locations" which we call "notes"? We call them "notes" because we have invented a way to describe certain coordinates, name them, and notate them. Can we stay aware of the whole landscape, not just the named landmarks?
   If I am playing the violin, let's say I start playing a note, from the frog (the part of the bow closest to where I hold it.) I have already done most of what is on paper: a certain pitch, a certain loudness of starting the note. Now I am in a process of holding it the notated duration of time, which doesn't take up a visually-proportional space on the page. I've already exhausted the information in the dot, so now I'm in uncharted territory: the unrepresented space-time between the notes. I am drawing my bow arm down, keeping the bow hair in contact with the string, extending my forearm to its full length. The movement of the bow arm is a continuous thing: a flow not described by a dot. My left hand is resting in a position, maybe vibrating back and forth, if that is desired in the musical style. My body as a whole has a certain shape, my hands are in a particular position for producing a particular sound. I reach the next instruction, the next dot. The dot on the page doesn't describe the multi-faceted motion through space that I must do with both hands to play the next pitch in the prescribed manner. The notation also doesn't show the time it takes to execute that motion.
   The feeling of transitional areas of time is known as "rhythm," and we work it with constantly as musicians. Its use in music is based on the concept of a mathematical grid placed over felt time, in which we measure relative "lengths" of time. We practice it as a mental discipline, but it resonates in the body. It is like intuitive mathematics. We feel the in-between times between impulses of sound.
   The transitional motions through space between note-landmarks are felt in the body by the sense of touch. From muscles and joints we receive messages about the shape we are making with our limbs in space. From pressure on our skin we receive messages about the instrument we are holding and playing. To feel the transitions between named points (notes) we have to stay "in touch" - in its most basic meaning. If we've gotten "out of touch" we must re-validate our sense of touch: re-activate the connection of our mental awareness to our sense of our bodies' felt presence. We must stay aware during transitions.

Next essay will continue with this subject, exploring the idea of perceiving and validating the in-between spaces and times...

Friday, October 3, 2008

Playing with Lenses (Ch.3)

Fisheye lens, macro lens, telephoto lens, wide-angle lens, 35mm lens. Different camera lenses help us make different pictures of the world. You can stand in the same spot and take radically different photographs with each of the lenses just mentioned. But even without a camera, we can see in multiple ways just by varying the ways we pay attention with our eyes. How we focus our eyes shapes how we perceive the world - even playing a big role in WHAT we perceive. On a deeper level our physical vision is linked to our way of being and acting in the world. How do you see the world?

Note:  I learned about the basic types of vision written about here from the writings of Tom Brown, Jr.   I am adding to those ideas here with my own thoughts and observations, which were probably influenced also by different sources which I can't remember right now.

Tunnel Vision
The default method of seeing in our culture is "tunnel vision," a narrow, straight line of focus. Tunnel vision helps us get stuff done, be productive, get from A to B. In its symbolic sense, tunnel vision keeps us on the "straight and narrow" path, representing self-limitation for the purpose of staying on a chosen or a socially-sanctioned path. It is a goal-oriented way of seeing: pointing your vision at a target and going straight toward it. You shut out most other things from awareness. Our culture loves tunnel vision. It is the type of vision which goes along with abstract thinking and reasoning. It is the kind of vision we usually use when watching television, looking at a computer, or reading.
The extreme version of tunnel vision is what I call "laser focus." With your laser, you can cut things up and analyze them scientifically. Laser focus is also the focus of obsession. This kind of vision can give you a headache! You get a lot accomplished, like with tunnel vision, but the energy is extremely concentrated. You can hurt people with this kind of vision. It can be cruel in its intensity, single-mindedness, and tendency to dissect.
Tunnel vision and laser focus are not "bad." They have led to many accomplishments and discoveries. However, they seem to be grossly overused by our culture! I know I use these modes a lot, with good and less-good outcomes. What are we missing out on, in the world outside our personal tunnels of habit? What are we doing as a species as we pursue our own agenda while ignoring the consequences to natural systems as a whole?

GAME #1: Notice when you are traveling in a narrow channel of habit and how this tends to lead you from point A to point B without much awareness of what's even nearby your tunnel of focus. Make an effort to notice random things - anything you don't usually look at - outside your usual routine of vision.

GAME #2: Positive use of tunnel vision: choose an object, and observe it for a period of time - say, 15 minutes. As your mind begins to wander, bring it back, an continue seeing more and more detail in the object. Notice color, texture, light reflection, shadow, negative space around it or inside it, geometry of it, substance it's made of, and so on. Do you appreciate it more now?

GAME #3: Notice the usual diameter of your personal tunnel. How wide is it? Now imagine your tunnel dilating, getting wider and fatter. Feel your forehead and your eyeball muscles relax, and it keeps expanding until your tunnel bursts open and you are suddenly using the next method of seeing....

Wide-Angle Vision
This is a way of relaxing your eyes and paying attention to the whole field in front of you and to the sides. You are not looking at anything in particular. You allow things to register in your brain from your peripheral vision. You don't keep your eyes fixed in one place - you let them wander a bit, or turn your head, always keeping the widest field to both sides and up and down.
This a more passive mode, as you wait for things to happen anywhere in the field. You are not projecting any more importance on one part of the field than on any other. It is a zone of awareness which is able to pick up motion, even tiny flutters in the periphery. You sense the layout of things and also the feel of the spaces between them as your brain scans here and there over the field. Hunters, both human and animal, use this to become aware of prey. When prey is sighted, then they zero in with sharp focus.
Wide-angle vision puts you in a state of flow with your environment. It is a state of being which makes you more aware of relationships: between objects, landscape elements, animals, people, flows of energy.
You will be amazed by how many more animals and birds you will notice if you slow down and practice this way of seeing. I have experienced this in the city as well as in the woods or other environment. In the city this kind of vision is important for personal safety: being aware of your surroundings, including the movement of vehicles and possibly people who could have suspicious motives. You can use wide-angle vision to spot friends in a crowd, or to see random people wearing the color red.
You will be a lot more aware about how people are interacting socially. I am trying to practice this when I play in an orchestra so I can feel more connected to the other musicians - to enjoy being in the moment together with them, instead of being so laser-focused on my part that I miss out on feeling part of a greater whole.

GAME #1: Stand up and hold both arms up together, straight in front of you. Now slowly move them apart wider and wider, keeping your attention on both, until they are as far out as you can take them and still keep them in your peripheral vision. Wiggle your fingers and tickle you brain a little. Keeping your head still, continue wiggling your fingers and circle your arms up, around the edges of your vision and to the center at 12:00, as high as you can see without moving your head, then all the way down and around to the ground at 6:00. Hold the whole field in your awareness and flicker your attention around it.

GAME #2: Expanding Fisheye. Imagine you have a fisheye lens on your face. The fisheye takes a picture of a wide angle where the image looks wrapped around you. Focus your fisheye on a sphere three feet (or one meter) out from you, keeping the whole sphere in equal focus/non-focus. Now make the sphere bigger, say 6 feet (2m) out. What is there? Take it to 12 feet, 24 feet. Remember that the sphere expands up and down as well as to the sides.

Play with your eyes and the psychology of vision.
Pretend you have the eyes of a
fly - multiple pictures at once!
airplane - get the overview
eagle - see something in the distance
microscope - look closely at hidden details

Books to check out: field guides by Tom Brown, Jr.
also this page:
To get more in depth about attention and creativity:
Thinkertoys, by Michael Michalko
Creativity, by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (This is a great book I dip into once in a while to remind me of important things and to give me new insights. Maybe now's the time to read more of it. It relates to the discussion of vision because creative people, although they become very focused on their projects, also vary their attention and have periods of idle time where they are letting images or information to come in, as in wide-angle vision.)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Why I'm Writing This Blog

These writings were first for me, to meditate on these subjects.  But I also really hope that the observations and lines of thought will be useful to other people.   The general stuff might be of interest to anyone, but there will be specific stuff posted pertaining to violin practice and performance.  Playing the violin is an ongoing exploration I started in 1973 (yikes!) and there is always more to learn... 
I'm learning how to enjoy it more.  
Actually, I'm learning to enjoy everything more.  

Expanding the Sphere of Awareness (Ch. 2)

So I'm on a quest to increase the sphere of my awareness. I've been thinking about this subject for at least 10 years, but now I am really working on it throughout the day, and applying it to my violin playing. I'm finding it a big challenge to break certain mental habits, but their resistance is making me more determined to break them. It has to do with re-ordering the priorities of attention: what stimuli get through in what order. As we get increasingly hypnotized by our information-gathering machines, our own amazing nervous systems get more and more neglected, and it seems we are heading toward a society of zombies. Is that an exaggeration, or are we there already? In certain ways I've escaped zombie-hood, since I've watched very little TV, and I've developed my sense of hearing through music, and I've enjoyed stretching and being physical. But in other ways I've been unconscious for years, because I've spent much of my life reading and in my imaginal world, letting all kinds of thoughts run wild and following them. This has resulted in a lot of stumbling, breaking glasses, spilling stuff, bumping into furniture - as my family and friends will attest, to my embarrassment... My new commitment to checking in with my senses is already making a difference.
    Tom Brown, Jr., founder of The Tracker School, wrote a book called Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking. This is my favorite of his many books, because it is the most basic and universal. Brown teaches skills that our ancestors all over the world used to survive, and a few isolated groups of people still live by these skills. Number One Skill is Awareness, and I think this is the most important and useful immediately to everyone, no matter what lifestyle you have or where you live. How can we train our brains to perceive more fully? It has to do with learning to pay attention to the messages that our senses already take in but which we have gotten in deep habits of ignoring. It has to do with quieting our mental chatter so that we can let these messages through. The messages could be from as close as inside our own bodies or they could be perceptions about things in our environment, or any combination of those. Over some time of paying attention to a new range of sense impressions, our brains begin to recognize patterns and our spheres of awareness grow. How we assign meaning to the perceived patterns is the subject of a whole other related exploration.
    Brown gives many useful techniques for increasing our connection to our environment through our senses. These are not just exercises which are "good for us" like "taking our vitamins." Being more aware leads to more joy, more love of life. Subjects in Chapter 1 include many simple guidelines to enhance awareness:
let go of the constant measurement of time; be in the present
slow down
sit quietly, or walk quietly; stop talking all the time!
let go of worries
remember that you're going to die (so don't miss out on being alive!)
let go of analyzing
let go of names (naming often prevents us from really observing)
don't dismiss anything as commonplace
follow your heart
let go of inhibitions
let go of preconceptions
immerse yourself in nature
    Brown is writing here about immersing yourself in an undomesticated, wild environment. It is possible to be immersed in a city, but it is dangerous to be unguarded about our explorations, and there are many social rules which inhibit us. Awareness is actually essential for city survival but you have to be sly about it. Immersing yourself in a wild environment, though, is amazing because everything is alive and energy is flowing, whereas in our modern domestic habitats we have blocked most of the flow and severely limited the life forms with which we interact. I have had wonderful experiences following Brown's advice and sitting in one spot in the woods for a couple of hours, being as still as possible. My "excuse" for doing this has been to record environmental sound, but the experience while out there is one of extremely heightened awareness. I become one with the flow, and birds and animals have come very close to me. A weasel has frolicked right next to me, a herd of peccaries has ambled by, deer have come very near, birds have been very close. It can be frightening, but it is an incredible high. Try it sometime.

Checking in with the Senses (Chapter 1)

On a Saturday afternoon in early September I went running on my favorite local trail, the Dipsea. It is very close to my house, and it provides a great workout as well as beautiful views. I usually park at a roadside trailhead and run down a steep hill, cross Muir Woods parking lot, and continue on the trail beyond, hiking up another long hill until it reaches a series of open hillside areas. The trail goes up and down gentler grassy slopes, through redwood groves, then up a steeper hill again to the intersection with the Coastal RidgeTrail, where I can see both the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. There I turn around and go back. Saturday I was enjoying the exhilarating sensations of running, walking, being in the open spaces, and smelling plants and soil. I tried to hold an awareness of my feet and their relationship to the changing ground, feeling how my body automatically made adjustments to the slopes and to the changing surface of the trail. 
   Enjoyment is the key, I thought, to youthfulness of body and mind. Do I enjoy my whole body, from head to toe? Do I really appreciate being able to move every part of it? I am making it my business to do so, I resolved. Although I do enjoy moving my body in a lot of ways, I could enjoy it even more by feeling within my senses more often - as opposed to observing as if my body were a doll in a mirror, or moving it like a puppeteer moves a puppet.
   Our culture does not generally celebrate awareness from within. We live in a culture dominated by the visual: the surfaces of people and things. Our body awareness is channeled into creating a presentation of our bodies for the eyes of others, predicting how they will react to the shape of our bodies and how they will read the style of our clothing. This way of thinking has especially been instilled in women, although many men have absorbed it, too. The observer's approach to the body is to treat it mainly as a mannequin upon which to drape signifying costumes.  When I was growing up, my mother passed down her belief that our costumes were to signify "attractive but modest, Christian and feminine."  She enjoyed looking at fashion magazines - she had even worked as a model in a New York store in her 20's - but she conveniently ignored the main intent of the fashion industry: display of the body as a desirable sex object. Contradictory messages were definitely received by my sister and me. Mom dressed us in matching, pretty, well-made outfits when we were small, always posing us carefully for photos. She taught us how to sew, a skill we enjoy to this day. My father also encouraged "mirror-consciousness," because of course he wanted his girls to look attractive.
    The way of a tradition which opposes the spirit to the flesh is to hide the body - or at least to make a show in public that it is under control. My mother's ideal was a combination of Protestant puritanism and 1950's American style: skirts had to hide the leg at least to below the knee, of course with pantyhose beneath, brassieres had to be worn so that everyone knew that the woman was obediently trying to hide the shape and bounce of her breasts (even if she didn't really succeed.) In the '70's and '80's, when I was a kid, although I knew nothing of the women's liberation movement which was going on, intuitively I was part of it. I hated what felt to me like an artificial show of "femininity" - which translated to me as "submissive, sexually repressed, domesticated, soft and sweet." As my sister and I got into our teenage years, the modesty issue became a subject for heated conflict. The pictures I pulled out of Mom's magazines and posted on my bedroom walls were of powerful, sexy women, ones who looked like adventurous barbarians in leather and furs and metal and velvet. That was how my science fiction and fantasy heroines looked. Although I resisted the image my mother wanted to impose, I fully absorbed the concept of presenting an image: mirror-consciousness.
    Mirror mode - creating and presenting an image - didn't ruin my life. I don't believe it to be all negative. To the contrary, I believe that the creation of an image can be an artistic expression, and it can be loads of fun for the wearer and the observer. The body naked or adorned can be a beautiful thing to look at. I have no ethical problem with a woman or a man willingly presenting him- or herself as an object of admiration and desire. I am not going to deal here with the issues having to do with social pressure to conform to a certain image, which can lead to deep psychological conflicts for some. My belief is that we can appreciate different kinds of beauty in ourselves and others. And as self-determining adults in a relatively free society, we can choose how to present ourselves, regardless of media propaganda. Whether we conform to the norm or challenge convention, body presentation is an important part of communication in every society. However, it has taken me many years to get to this point: clearly defining an alternative mode of body awareness and claiming the intentional practice of it as integral to my life. This alternative mode is: paying attention to the messages of the senses from within.
    Certainly this is not a new idea. People meditate to practice mindfulness. Maybe I haven't done enough of that. Much meditation in religious traditions, however, seems to aim at transcending the physical, instead of becoming more aware of it. I am interested in how I can use my awareness not just sitting still, but as part of my activities: playing the violin, walking, running, biking, dancing. My sphere of awareness could be more complete and more sensitive. I keep coming up against mental "blind spots" which impede the flow of activity, causing clumsiness. Saturday, when I was running, and enjoying it so much, I started thinking about the lovely essay I was going to write on this subject, and my consciousness became completely engaged in the mental world, and lost all contact with my feet. I found myself crash-diving on the trail, skidding to a stop on my right elbow, shoulder, hip and knee. UUNNNGGGH! There's a nice reality check. My mind was elsewhere, and my body was a puppet on automatic pilot. I paid for it in bruises and scrapes (healed up just fine by now.)
    Objectification does not of itself have to mean blocked awareness from within. It does not matter how someone else looks at me if I am able to keep in touch with my inner point of view. This inner vantage point is like a window which has been boarded up - covered over by our own mental habits. We block out the body's signals in favor of inhabiting mental worlds. Giving dominance within ourselves to the symbol-making, abstract-reasoning mind over the feeling, somatic-relational mind obstructs sensory awareness. Our whole educational system is geared to produce this result. "Sit down, be still, don't look out the window, read this, write that." Reading, watching television and using the computer demand the a narrow focus on the visual-symbolic world. From an early age our system cultivates a narrow focus on the abstract reasoning mind and ignores other ways of using the brain and senses. We become so accustomed to this thought patterning that our own bodies are just other objects in a symbolic world. Again, I am not making the point that abstraction and narrow focus are "bad." We need to cultivate our reasoning, symbolic minds - the ability to do this may even define us as a species. I love reading - an ancient cultivator of the abstract mind. I was a bookworm from a very young age. It was wonderful - but with too much bookworm-mind comes absent-minded body: clumsiness and bruised shins, spilled drinks and broken objects, missed notes on the violin. No-one trained me in how to use my mind-body awareness, my somatic consciousness - not violin teachers, not even dance teachers.
    How is one to make a practice of inhabiting the body, really being present in all our physical senses? It is tricky for people - for us abstract-thinking types particularly - who are attached to our symbolic minds, our reasoning powers, and our creative fantasies. There is also the bombardment by the entertainment media to contend with. Can we keep the valuable aspects of those mental activities - and also cultivate our precious body awareness? It seems to me that one should never completely exclude the other: there must be a cycling between different modes of consciousness. This would mean making a habit of constantly "checking in" with one's different levels, not allowing a narrow focus to prevail for too long a time. It has to do with giving oneself instructions, programming oneself, about which stimuli are important to notice. First stop: sensory awareness. This would include sensations of all nerve endings on the skin's surface and throughout the body. It would include registering all audible sounds, smells and tastes, and the field of vision, including the peripheral. All of the sensations can be grouped together as the physical, one aspect of the awareness cycle. The other stops on the cycle could be in varying order, depending on what one is doing and feeling: acknowledging one's emotional state, feeling one's relationship to other beings or objects, engaging in the symbolic/verbal layers of mental activity. Some people believe in other levels of consciousness as well, encompassing intuitive and spiritual realms. But my main objective now is integrating physical consciousness with the mental - and giving the physical the attention it deserves.
    So, the practice is: constantly reminding the mind to check in with the body. Re-minding the body, re-bodying the mind. If the cycling of "checking in" is frequent enough - even practiced to the point of being very fast - all levels of awareness could be operating harmoniously in parallel. There is no division between them really: the mind is a function of the physical brain, as far as we can prove without getting into the realm of metaphysics. The head is connected to the body by the neck. The nervous system throughout the body is really an extension of the brain. Why do we become like heads cut off - heads floating around without bodies? Check in, self! How's my neck? Is my face tense? What are my toes and fingers feeling? Am I breathing? Is my spine aligned and fluid? Is my butt becoming numb from sitting too long while I'm writing this? Wouldn't it feel good to stretch? What objects are around me as I stretch out my arms and legs? Any people to hit, or liquids to spill? Is the path clear? Stretch, walk, dance. Eat, drink. Think. Check in: sense, feel. Move. Think while sensing, move while feeling.
    Consciously cultivating our senses increases the quality of our lives. That is seemingly a blatantly obvious statement - but maybe we need to remind ourselves of this in a culture which pushes us toward narrow focus, sedentary habits, insensitivity, even deadening of the senses. Our physical senses give us so much pleasure when we allow ourselves to hear their messages. I should say - MY senses give me so much pleasure when I let them! I am motivated to continue living because it feels good to be alive.