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
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.)
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