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

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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.

 

 

3 thoughts on “PRACTICING ZEN/TRUMPET: PART 2

  1. Thank you for your observations. They are useful, and concise, an encouragement to “practice”.

  2. Some people hope there will be a time when practice can come to an end, but I learned long ago this will not be the case. As years of practice added up I realized there was always more to learn and I became thankful that the well was never dry. That this is true becomes apparent when you open yourself to the big picture for whatever it is you are training.
    My recommendation is to try to be completely open all the time in order to see as many ways of practicing as possible. And to look for as many questions which will lead you into new areas of practice .In other words, 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. Long time practitioners of anything are learning how to deal with the unexpected in a way that supports and promotes their “art, zen, etc,” And every new moment has the likelihood of containing unexpected demands or choices. The more you practice, the more likely you will be experienced in whatever comes up next.
    People are referred to as pros when we see them as “experienced”. The definition of an expert, or professional, is they are the people who know how to fix their mistakes. And the real pros’ mistakes are not ever seen or heard. Except by another professional. Which is why Wynton Marsalis has a teacher.
    My Zen teacher, Maezumi Roshi, told me one day his teacher had just passed away. He then asked me, “What will I do now?” It was a rhetorical question.

  3. the trumpet is the most zen instrument i have ever played. it has to do with the mouthpiece configuration and the physical approach, and then the instrument itself, and coordinating that whole shebang to get a crafted sound past bugle calls, and the enormous ocean of time and wisdom you cross making it play.
    with the suzuki approach we could come along a bit better with fiddles, but what’s the fun of that. the ocean, you know.
    ..chuck