JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION: “SOCIAL VIRTUOSITY” AND PRACTICE

The chart above was sent to me by James “The Sax Guy” who also adds some interesting comments  to the previous post.

In the last post “Great Unexpectations: Jazz/Zen improvisation“,  I pointed to some parallels between jazz and the awakened life, as described by Peter Hershock in his book “Liberating Intimacy”.  Hershock points out that Zen practice can lead to a  “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to spontaneously respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance and suggests that the practice of Zen can also lead to conduct that somehow enhances the larger social whole.

Hershock goes on to point out that this “awakened virtuosity” includes the understanding that one will often not be the center of attention.  This willingness to “sacrifice” for the larger performance of our collective lives is what he sees as the essence of the Zen enterprise.  According to Hershock:….the sincere practitioner must be willing to ‘do’ nothing at all and simply allow his or her life to proceed unchecked.  Anything else amounts to holding on (obsessive attachment) and holding off (the arrogance of aversion).  Like a piece of improvised music, practice is something other than the sum of its individually experienced, factual or behavioral parts, and there are times when the part ‘we’ play in it seems so infinitesimal as to be no part at all.  To extend the musical analogy, practice sometimes puts us in the position of playing a simple rhythmic pattern again and again, subtlety opening up the field of time and space on which we find others soloing, expressing the infinite degrees of their freedom.  There is no glamour in this “repetition” no exalted sense of individual accomplishment, and yet it is precisely what is needed at times for the music to come fully to life.

While being in the spotlight, as a soloist, is part of what it means to play jazz, it is only one momentary aspect of the whole scene. Equally, if not more important, is being able to provide harmonic support for other soloist and the group as a whole.  In jazz, as in other fields, “showboaters” usually do not last very long.  Hershock seems to be saying that the so-called “enlightened life”, as it evolves through Zen practice, involves “playing second fiddle” in ways that support the free expression of others” as much, if not more than, being in the spotlight.

Having played drums in a variety of improvisational groups, I relate to the role of providing unglamorous “repetition”.  Except for the rare drum solo, the drummer’s main role is to support the other musicians as they play the melody and take their solos.  Primarily this entails maintaining a steady beat, but especially in jazz, it can also involve adding embellishments that add to the overall performance of the group.  An accent on the bass drum,  a change in dynamics or a riff that responds to what the soloist is doing can add a vibrancy to the performance and can affect where the soloist goes in his or her improvisation.  I found that I needed to learn to find a sense of accomplishment in providing this supporting role for the group as a whole and forgo the natural inclination to be “in the spotlight”. The most satisfying compliments I received as a drummer were those from fellow musicians who acknowledged that I was both listening to them and providing support or fodder for their improvisations.  In a sense, the appreciation was for my being fully present with the other musicians, doing my part to help them be fully present and doing my part to help “the music to come fully to life” (Hershock).

When this happens, says Hershock:

………. our simple contribution is heard in a completely new and always unanticipated way, becoming something much more sublime than we could ever have imagined.  In the same way, as  long as we are fully engaged in practicing Ch’an, even though we may from an objective point of view be doing nothing out of the ordinary, the meaning of our activity - our conduct- is undergoing continual transformation.  Even though we are doing nothing special, our relationships become progressively more open and truthful. (pg. 120)

 

Hershock’s term “social virtuosity” may be misleading.  It does not necessarily refer to being what we often call “socially adept” and it does not refer to an attitude of concern about social injustices or other societal maladies.  The awakened person may certainly possess these characteristics, but they are not the essence of what Zen practice is all about. Zen students are encouraged to take the vow of “freeing” all sentient beings” which seems to be a clear message that, as in Jazz,  the goal of Zen practice should not conceived as a personal or selfish one, but one that is social, in a certain sense. (See “Four Vows” as practiced at The Vista Zen Center”. http://www.vistazencenter.com/vows-and-precepts)

Understandably, this vow raises also sorts of interpretations as to  what is meant by “freeing” (often the word “saving” is used) and what is meant by “sentient beings”, as well as questions about the feasibility of such a task.  There has been a great deal of discussion about what exactly this vow calls for on the part of a Zen student. However, Hershock seems to argue that, whatever is involved in fulfilling this vow, it does not entail “doing something”.  It does not involve the usual, goal- directed orientation that most people adopt when trying to perfect their behavior.    Rather it is the Zen practice of “not-doing” that allows one to fulfill this vow; the “not doing” of spontaneously responding to what is in the moment, of improvisation grounded in years of practice. For a more,in-depth and lenthy theoretical/Zen/philosophical discussion of this topic, click on the FORUMs tab at the top of the page and see Discussion #3, COMMENT D.

For Hershock, “social viruosity” or “awakened conduct” consists of spontaneous responses to what is happening in the moment.  It is being present/awake/alive, in a way that also allows or encourages others the freedom to be present with the “business” of jointly carrying on their lives in ways that minimizes suffering.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Howard Thurmond

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GREAT UNEXPECTATIONS: JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION

In comments on my post titled “Practicing Zen/Trumpet: Part 2”  Jiyu Roshi wrote the following: …….for practice to work you have to be open to the unexpected, either in an answer you’ve arrived at, or in whatever may be a new question to which you are trying to find an answer. It’s the unexpected which is reality and the reason for practicing.

This quote reminded me of something that happened at one of my trumpet lessons.  While Nathan, my teacher, and I were warming up before the lesson, he played an incredible complex exercise in the upper register.  I asked him how likely it was that he would ever encounter any written music where he would have to playing anything that complex.  He answered that it was very unlikely, but that since he played improvisational jazz, he wanted to be able to play whatever he was “hearing” during solos. ( He may have used the word “feeling” instead of “hearing”).

Nathan Mills

In playing jazz or other improvisational music, each piece has a distinct series of chords that provide a common structure for the musicians.  During a solo, the players are free to create their own melody as long as it fits with the chord progressions of the song and whatever they play is in harmony with what others in the band are doing.  In other words, each musician is free to spontaneously play whatever sounds right in the context of what everyone else in the group is doing.  Instantaneously, all the others in the band are responding to whatever is being created by the soloist.

 

It is through constant practice that the improviser prepares himself or herself to respond instantaneously to whatever others in the band are doing moment by moment. Accomplished improvisers will tell you that true improvisation is accomplished only after one has so thoroughly mastered their instrument that they no longer have the need to think or plan as they solo. But, having superb technique is not enough.  To learn to improvise, musicians must also throw themselves into musical situations where improvisation is expected.  This is beyond the comfort zone for most musicians and so is avoided, even by those who have superior musical skills.

 

Using the language developed in my past posts, we can say that jazz virtuosos are able to “be present-awake-alive” so that they can spontaneously do what is necessary to contribute to the  collective creation of the piece being performed.  It is this aspect of improvisation that Peter Hershock emphasizes when he attempts to use jazz improvisation as a metaphor for the enlightened or awaken Zen life. (“Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in Ch’an Buddhism.”)

Rather than seeing Zen practice as an attempt to attain a special experience or state of consciousness, Hershock writes about enlightened or awakened conduct; a distinct “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance. But, this responsiveness is not calculated or rule-driven.   Rather it is based on a spontaneous and expanded awareness of what is needed, moment by moment, allowing the musical band to “pull off” it’s performance as a whole unit.

According to Hershock: “Whenever a solo appears, it is not conceived and then executed in seriality, but courses through the musician and his instrument, flowing from that unlocated, unlocateable source of the unexpected lying outside of every horizon, every name and form.”….This flow comes about when the musician stops checking, when he stops figuring out what to play and abandons the projection of the known, the hunger for closure, for sense.  ….The aim of improvisation is not to negotiate or regulate an agreement about how thing are, but rather the creation of a novel harmony through jointly articulating a new world- be it musical., poetic, choreographic or erotic. (pg. 76)

 

Note my underlining of the word “jointly” in the last line of this quote.  Whether we are talking about music or ordinary life we are always affecting and being affected by others.

Whenever an instrumentalist in a jazz group plays a solo, he or she is instantaneously influencing the other players, whose responses, in turn, help shape the direction of the solo.  At any moment something new or unplanned may appear and each musician, and the group as a whole, finds itself going in an unexpected directions.  When the musicians have practiced and mastered their instruments, the conditions (a balance between challenge and skill) that Csikszentimihalyi  says are necessary for “flow” can occur.  (See Are You a Flow Addict and So Can an Average Joe Learn to Flow).  When all the members of a band get into a flow state, it is often referred to as “getting into a groove” and I recall one musician describing that experience as “being the most fun a person can have with their pants on”.

In everyday life, change, and thus the unexpected, generally stems from other people around us.  Most social groups and even our personalities are geared towards reducing the unexpected and probably Zen’s most important insight into human behavior is that such efforts are fruitless and lead to suffering.  This leads us back to Roshi’s last point in the quote at the beginning of this essay: It’s the unexpected which is reality and the reason for practicing.

When we sit in Zazen, hour after hour, we observe that whatever or whoever we think we are changes from moment to moment.  We learn to see how change is the only constant and we learn how to simply flow with whatever is happening.  Working with a Zen Koan involves learning how to let go our ordinary ways of responding to problems and allowing ourselves to move into the realm of the “unexpected”.  Zen teachers have traditionally been known to respond enigmatically to questions from their students in order to thrust them out of the ordinary mode of consciousness.  The goal in all of these practices is to prepare the students to be comfortable with the unexpected, and thus, to be masters of improvisation.  This entails extending one’s comfort zone.

 

Some of you may be wondering what all of this has to do with the Buddhist vow of “saving all sentient beings” which is central to the Zen tradition.  I will offer an opinion on that  in Part 2.

PAINTING AND ZEN PRACTICE IN POLAND: A VISIT WITH PIOTR KRYSIAK

I just spent a week in Texas visiting my grandsons and and then another week at The Vista Zen Center for a meditation retreat.  So, I am a bit behind in my blogging.  While I work on my next installment of the series on “practice”, I would like for you to visit with Piotr Krysiak, a  painter and Zen student from Poland.  Piotr has sent me several comments regarding Art And Zen Today and I have spend time roaming around his website (see address at  bottom).

Below  I have copied Piotr’s statement about his Zen and artistic practices as well as his background.  All of the pictures on this page are images of Piotr’s acrylic paintings, but these are just a few of many and I would suggest you visit his website to see all of his paintings as well as some interesting videos.  One of the things I like about his paintings is that they have both an ancient and contemporary quality to them: Zen art for the 21st century.

Piotr’s Statement

I’ve been practicing zazen for several years. Two times a day. Every day. Mainly to unprogram myself from what I have been suggested as good, bad, right, wrong, important, unimportant, fashionable, desirable, expected, valuable, mine. Unprogram from all that reaches me constantly – all the variable ideas that are only subsequent interpretations of reality.

 

Zazen causes disappearance of these conditions. The result is serenity. The combination of artistic practice and zazen gives the possibility to balance on the
edge which on one side enables to be consciously in the now while on the other leaves behind artifacts reminding of coming back to the now.

Copied from an email from Piotr 

About three years ago I went to a lecture about Zen. After the lecture there was a proposal to try zazen ourselves. I can’t really explain what happened but it just worked with me, just like that, simply sitting and thinking not thinking. Since then, I’ve been doing zazen twice a day, every day. I’ve noticed slow changes in my life. Like I was freeing myself from limitations I wasn’t aware of. I read a couple of books about zen and they simply pointed what I felt that day during my first zazen trial. I do believe zen is a constant work. I don’t have a teacher.

 Resume

MA – Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow

SELECTED EXHIBITIONS
2011 – Salted Candy, collective exhibition – Poznanska Galeria Nowa
2011 – II Triennial of Contemporary Polish Painting – Jesienne Konfrontacje,
collective exhibition – BWA Rzeszow, BWA Zamosc
2010 – New things, solo exhibition – Museum in Bielsko-Biala
2010 – Under, collective exhibition – Cellar Gallery, Krakow
2005 – Piotr Krysiak – painting, solo exhibition – Schindler Factory, Krakow

 

SELECTED COLLECTIONS
Museum in Bielsko-Biala
Dave Bown Collection, USA

Website:     http://piotrkrysiak.com/

Email:                   piotr.krysiak@gmail.com

 

PRACTICING ZEN/TRUMPET: PART 2

In part 1, I described how both Zen and trumpet practice requires developing a general “somatic awareness” that can only be indirectly taught by a teacher.  The parallels between these two practices hit home when one day Nathan, my trumpet teacher, said something about my needing to remove my “self” from my blowing. That sounded a lot like what any traditional Zen teacher might say to a student performing a particular task whether it be cooking, washing the laundry, archery, ink painting or serving tea.  I think the Zen idea of “removing the self ” in activities closely relates to points I made in earlier posts where I suggested that only by “forgetting” and “letting go” of preconceptions about what you should be doing, will a natural expression of one’s self or one’s creativity be allowed to happen.  (See What the _____was that Video About?) When trying too hard to accomplish a goal, we often create physical tensions for ourselves, which makes the goal all the more difficult to reach.

When playing the trumpet, my efforts often manifest in a tightening of facial and mouth muscles that inhibit my lips from serving the function of a flexible and pliable reed.  It is the vibration of lips which is the source of the sound in the trumpet and to the extent that the lips are tense or restricted, the resulting tone is also tense and restricted.  In daily life, our internal tensions restrict our natural expressions of spontaneity and compassion by verbal clues and body-language, of which we are largely unaware.  Such unintended signals can stand in the way of developing healthy relationships with others and act as obstacles in achieving life-goals. Both trumpet playing and Zen Playing require tremendous commitment to practice, but both also seem to require a healthy letting go of excessive self-consciousness and the physical tensions that ensue

.

Before going further, I’d like you to take a look at a short and amusing video. It consisting of clips taken from a documentary on Wynton Marsalis rehearsing with opera star Kathleen Battle in preparation for a joint recording. Marsalis is the Artistic Director of Jazz at  Lincoln Center and has won Grammys for his trumpet playing on both Jazz and Classical recordings.

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

Nathan wanted me to watch this video so I could see Wynton’s teacher demonstrate the proper method of pushing air though a trumpet.  Although I found this instructive, I was more struck by the question of why someone of Marsalis’ caliber would need to have a teacher following him around providing such elementary instruction. In the video his teacher, Bill Fields, is using the kinds of indirect metaphors that I spoke of in Part 1 to get his student to relax and blow naturally; i.e. without “putting too much self” into it.  At every lesson I have had  so far, Nathan uses this, or some similar technique, to help me to attain a relaxed sound.  The fact that Wynton is still practicing such techniques was mind-boggling to me at first, but the more I thought about it, the more understandable it became.

 

Although the aim of trumpet playing and Zen are not the same, both disciplines seem to require methods of practice that help one to diminish self-consciousness and the accompanying tensions that impede natural expression.  Furthermore, it seems that the practice of basics or fundamentals is never dropped.  Nathan says he practices about 3 hours everyday and much of what he practices is similar to the fundamental exercises that I am working on as a beginner.  Our local Public Radio station recently had a series on “practice” and one episode focused on a new cellist with one of the major symphony orchestras.  She related that when she was chosen to join the orchestra she felt a sense of humbleness and awe at being surrounded by so much talent and so was extremely surprised to discover that, during warm up periods, all of the other musicians played very simple basic exercises.

Jiyu Roshi tells the story of visiting his teacher, Maezumi Roshi, who told Jiyu that he had been practicing “breath counting”, the exercise that is first given to all new Zen students.  As Jiyu says, all the basic breathing counting exercises can become a part of one’s “bag of tricks” to be used anytime whenever appropriate.  Although Zen students may go on to practice more challenging techniques, breath counting remains as a foundation, perhaps much like the simples exercises practiced by professional musicians all throughout their careers.

Both Zen and trumpet playing seem to involve developing the kind of “somatic awareness” that I have been talking about in articles leading up to this one.  In order to attain a relaxed and natural sound on the trumpet, I will need to develop an awareness of what is happening in my tongue, my facial muscles, my lips, my posture and my breath.  It seems that much of what is learned in practicing Zazen also involves this kind of “somatic awareness”, although it is not often emphasized. Here are two sources that are consistent with this view:  (Loori )  and (Will Johnson) .

Let me mention one final common point between Zen and trumpet practice.  I find any semblance of progress in both to be painfully slow and as a result have had constant doubts about whether or not these practices are worth the effort.  So why do I persist?  A “left brain” sort of answer is that I am aware of research showing that exercises that require paying attention and forming new habits can slow the aging process of  the brain.   However, probably more important is the fact that, for reasons I’m unclear about, I seem to be attracted to practice.  It may be simply that  I tend  to become easily bored.  It has occurred to me that by committing to a discpline requiring constant practice, I am alway being challenged without being overwhelmed.  As you will recall, these are the conditions that may facillitate flow. (See “Are you a Flow Addict?”  and  “So Can an Average Joe learn to Flow?” ).

A common belief of many beginning Zen students (myself included) is that after practicing for years, they will eventually reach a state (enlightenment?) where they no longer need to do it any more.  Based on my observations and reading (particularly the work of Dogen), it seems that this is not the case.  It appears that in any discipline, music, Zen, golf or whatever, the body/mind needs to be continually “reminded”, through practice, of how to allow us to “get out of our own way” so our natural “tone” can be expressed.  The nature of practice may change over time but there is no end to practice. More about this in future posts.