PRACTICING ZEN/TRUMPET

Miles Davis See Video Below

Since this blog bill’s itself as pertaining to “artistic and spiritual practices”, I want to explore the concept of “practice” in a series of essays.  In this post, I’m going to make some observations about my practice of Zen and my practice of playing the trumpet. I don’t want to underestimate the complexity and the difficulty of mastering either the trumpet or Zen, and I don’t want to give the impression that the practice of both are exactly the same thing, however, I do think it can be instructive to point to some common features.  Also, I should point out that I am a relative beginner in both disciplines and so my observations are likely limited by that fact.

I started formal trumpet lessons about 6 months ago but had purchased a trumpet earlier and had tried to work my way through various lessons on my own. So, I messed around with my trumpet for about a year, wanting, I guess, to feel it out and see whether I really wanted to commit to the expense and discipline associated with taking lessons. Also, the idea of someone taking up such a difficult instrument at my age seemed crazy and it took me a while to get over that idea.  Although I learned to “play’ scales and a few songs, I was accutely aware that my “tone” stunk.

Once I decided to commit to lessons, I shopped around for teachers and chose someone who I considered to be the best fit for me.  The person I chose is Nathan Mills who teaches youth in the

Nathan Mills

Escondido area and plays in a variety of bands all over San Diego and beyond.  Everyone I talked with gave Nathan great praise, but the deciding factor for me was that his email address includes the phrase “crazytrumpetman”

My process of moving cautiously into trumpet playing resembles what I and others have gone through when moving into spiritual practices.  Most people do a lot of reading and practicing on their own at first and only gradually commit to a particular group or teacher.  I think we all realize that, once we make that kind of commitment, our practice will face a new level of difficulties not found when just sort of mucking about on our own.  This is why most people interested in spiritual transformation avoid committing to becoming a formal student of a spiritual discipline and consequently, don’t go very far.

During my first trumpet lesson, I became aware that there would be some similaritiesbetween trumpet practice and Zen practice.  Nathan told me that he would not be able to directly instruct me in how to play.  In other words he could not say do “such and such” with your lip” and “this or that” with your tongue, breath, throat, facial muscles etc.  He said that the best he could do is give general hints about these things and that it was up to me to figure out, on my own, how to do it.  So, for instance, I was told to think of or feel like I was singing when blowing into the trumpet.  Without him specifying what had to be done exactly to do this, I was slowly able to make some improvement in my tone by trying to keep that image in mind as I practiced.  Much of the work in my lessons so far has involved trying to activate various visual or sonic metaphors that are general in nature but provide some indirect clues as to how to make physical adjustments in the blowing process. Part of the problem is that every student has a unique set of physical characteristics and so no single verbal instructions will work for all.   This means that each student will need to try slightly different ways of finding their own sound.

Based on my personal experiences and observations of others, I would say that something similar happens to new Zen students.  Not having much of a clue as to what was going on in my teacher’s mind when he meditated, I had to rely on indirect comments made by Jiyu Roshi  and on things I read.  When I first started practicing Zazen, I was given a series of exercises that involved “counting breaths”.  Although this sounds like it is fairly concrete and easy to communicate, I found out that what I thought the experience of counting would or should be, changed as I practiced over time.  In other words, whatever the teacher meant by these terms did not correspond exactly to what I thought they meant. Later, when moving into the practice of Shikantaza or “just sitting”, I found even greater ambiguity . Roshi told me, on countless occasions, exactly what Nathan had said;  that he could only give me broad verbal clues and that it was ultimately up to me to discover what worked. Whenever I asked for more concrete or explicit instructions, Roshi would try to comply but I could always tell that there was only so much he could do or say, and that ultimately,  I needed to just sit and find my own way.

It strikes me that good teachers, in any discipline, have to work with the unique characteristic of each student and part of this involves providing a supportive environment for the student to experiment with finding what works for them.  It is probably the case that someone could learn to either play the trumpet on their own or practice Zen on their own, but it is my guess that having regular contact with a teacher makes this much easier.  In both cases, I find it valuable to have a positive model and someone who can provide regular feedback, even if it comes in the form of indirect hints or suggestions.  I have found that in both disciplines  whatever passes for progress comes slowly and never as fast as expected.  I’m guessing that in trumpet playing, as well as Zen, that ruminating about achieving a certain goal is actually counterproductive, since being relaxed seems to be a common feature to virtuosity in both disciplines.

I just watched the movie “Collateral” starring Tom Cruse and Jamie Fox where Miles Davis is referred to as “the coolest man on the planet”.  Miles, who is my creative hero, one said: “ I’ve practiced my tone for almost 50 years, and if I can’t hear my tone, I can’t play”.  In the next installment, I’ll look at the apparent need in both music and Zen for neverending practice in order to find our natural “tone”. Before wrapping up, let me suggest that you take a look at my music video homage to Miles Davis.  It was produced last year on the occasion of the 10 year anniversary of his passing.  The music was taken a CD produced by my old band Shocradance.  My brother wrote the tune. I wrote the lyrics and it is sung by Kirsten Bolton. Click on the link below to see the video.  (You may also want to read Part 2 of this post and some later posts on Improvisation.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbxn3nAcAXk

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HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY OPENED- FOCUS EXPERIENCE WHILE READING THIS POST!

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“The reader can experiment with developing a more inclusive attentional orientation even while continuing to be engaged in the act of reading. Is it possible for you now to permit your various somatic sensations to be also present in your awareness while you read? That is, can you imagine yourself reading and also simultaneously experiencing the volume of your whole body? Perhaps you will need to pause for a moment to allow your body feelings to emerge in your field of attention. Can you imagine, however, that you can proceed with reading and simultaneously attend to these body feelings? Can you imagine that when you feel a sense of effortlessness about reading with your whole body that you can then gradually expand your attention to include any thoughts, emotions, peripheral visual experiences, tastes, smells and sounds which may be simultaneously occurring as you read? Can you image that you need not scan in an effortful or sequential fashion among your various experiences in order to attend to them ? Is it possible for you, while allowing your attentional field to broaden to include simultaneously occurring experiences, that you can attend equally or without any particular bias to the various experiences surrounding the act of reading?” That is, can

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you permit your attention to be equally and simultaneously spread out among body feelings, thoughts, emotions, sounds, etc., while you continue to read further?     The material in quotes above, was taken from an article titled “Open Focus: The Attentional Foundation of Health and Well-Being” by Lester Fehmi and George Fritz?  What you are reading at this point is not actually from the article but you can continue allowing yourself to simultaneously attend to the meaning being conveyed in this article as well as whatever else is going on internally and externally.  It may have crossed your mind that you are multi-tasking, but I am wondering whether that is really true.  I have read that the mind can only focus on one thing at a time.  When we are asked to focus attention simultaneously on what we are reading and what we are sensing, are we really doing that?  Or, is the mind shifting back and forth between various object so quickly that it just seems simultaneous?  If you have been able to experience an Open Focus as you read this, what is your perception of what is happening  to you?  As you think about that, try to focus as well on any bodily feelings, sensations and emotions.  If you have practiced meditation, do you think that that has affected how you carry on the task you are being asked to do here?  If so, how?  Have you found yourself holding this opened focus orientation in other situations in your life?  Are there situations where you think doing so would be useful?  Fehmi and Fritz do not talk about spiritual practice and personal transformation, but I’m guessing that such practices facilitate what the authors call “Open Focus modes of attention attention”.  This fits with what James Olsen says in

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his book The Whole-Brain Path to Peace as well as with the emphasis in the Zen literature on integrating Absolute and Relative modes of consciousness.  Are you still aware of your internal signals as you read and think about all of this?  I know that after I read stuff like this, certain parts of my body are tense. It might be a tightness in my jaw, the top of my head , my shoulders or my legs.  Sometimes it is felt in my stomach.  Generally, when I read I’m caught up in thoughts of the past (how does what the author says relate to my past experiences?) or thoughts of the future (how can I use this information in my life?).  In other words, in this narrow focued mode, I’m not fully present. (Are you, right now, feeling whatever somatic sensations are present?) (Wouldn’t it be nice if everything we read, had these little reminders interspersed throughout the text?) Lately I have noticed that I have become better able to sense any tension in my body as I am reading. I am hopeful that ,if this continues to happen,  I will be able to relax those area of tension more quickly.  I attribute this change to practicing Zazen, where over and over again, I catch myself moving out of the present moment and bring my attention back to internal

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and sensory sensations.  Zazen and similar meditative methods are primarily  techniques for “remembering to remember“.

Since this is an experiential post, it would be useful for readers to hear from others about their experiences. Please consider leaving a comment telling us how this exercise went for you (and while you write your comments, remember to ” permit your attention to be equally and simultaneously spread out among body feelings, thoughts, emotions, sounds, etc.).  STAY OPEN!

To leave a comment, click on the white bubble at the right of the title.  To make an anonymous comment, write “anonymous” when prompted for a name.  You can also send comments to me directly.