The Feldenkrais Method and the real meaning of ‘breath control’ – part three: Internal and external rhythms – Breath and the musical environment
May 14, 2013
This will be last piece about the “real meaning” of ‘breath control’, although I will return to many of the same themes again. Of course, there is no single “real meaning.” Rather, I am trying to establish the kind of breath control, I am personally trying to achieve, and, thus, explain why I have decided to use this term as my banner for writing about what interests me. I have grouped these three pieces together simply because it has been necessary to write them all in order to finally cover all the areas that I originally had in mind when I began.
First I covered my initial experiences with the Feldenkrais Method in June. I wrote about my discovery of Feldenkrais and then described some experiments I carried out last summer, incorporating aspects of Awareness through Movement (ATM) lessons into my running routine (if you don’t know by now what an ATM is, please read the previous posts or search online for “awareness through movement”). The missing piece of my original plan was to describe some experiments I had carried out with running and breathing a year earlier (to which I have already alluded).
At the time I carried out those experiments, I had already discovered Pilates and Yoga and had begun reading books about breathing. I didn’t yet know of the Feldenkrais Method, but I had begun to discover one of its key components, the powerful tool of awareness; the multitude of new possibilities that opens up when we simply begin to notice ourselves, and later to really listen internally on a deeper and deeper level.
While I will give many details, more important than the specifics of my various experiments is their general direction. I am describing the past, above all, to clarify the future I am looking for, and it is in that direction where I most hope I may draw the interest of the curious reader (and potential experimentalist). So, what were the aims of these experiments and how did I come up with them in the first place?
The shortest explanation is that all of this exploration is directed towards the realization of my musical vision, something I call the Beeayboll Project, a long-term exploration of the intersecting sound worlds of music and language.
I will talk about some of my rather odd musical history, connections between music and language, and connections between our bodies’ internal rhythms and the rhythms of the external environment – including my musical experiences in industrial workplaces.
Finally, I’ll borrow an idea from Moshe Feldenkrais as I try to describe my personal definition of the “real meaning of breath control,” that is, the kind of breath control I am personally hoping to achieve. It is related to something that I will call “rhythmic reversibility.” If you already know something about the Feldenkrais Method and how Feldenkrais practitioners use the term “reversibility” it may make the direction of what follows a little clearer.
But I will get to that later. First, I’ll look backwards.
Running and Breathing (part one)
The following is an attempt to describe an experience that is now nearly two years old.
That summer, I ran nearly every day. And each day that I went out, I counted my breaths and my steps as I went. Little by little, after experimenting with different combinations, I came up with a series of numerical patterns that dictated the lengths of successive inhalations and exhalations while I ran. These durations were measured in numbers of paces of my running feet. Meanwhile, I composed musical phrases in my head that fit inside these durations. I allowed the musical phrases to more or less compose themselves, based on what I felt I was already hearing as I ran, counted and breathed.
Over time I had something fairly fixed in my mind, a kind of theme song that accompanied my daily jog, but I never allowed myself to completely “finish” it. Each day’s exercise always brought some new experience inside that altered my relationship to this music.
Over time (for reasons I will explain more fully below) I concocted different musical breathing patterns for uphill, downhill and flat planes. Thus, turning the corner at the end of the park and going up past the tennis courts also felt something like moving from the “verse” to the “chorus.” (When it’s your favorite song, that moment can be rapture. For the “so-so” song, it might be the disappointment of going from the “good part” to the place where the music seems to go lifeless. These are the extremes of course. There’s always everything in between.)
Some days the sun shined and I ran fast. Other days, it was cloudy and I was worried about something that happened at work or at home. Just like anyone who sings the same song again and again, the way they sing it changes with time and circumstances, and so does the way it makes them feel. I didn’t always like my song, but after awhile, there it was, anyway, stuck in my head.
But something important was happening inside (was it in my nervous system or my soul?!). What it was I couldn’t possibly have described, except that periodically there were indeed those moments of rapture which brought me back again and again to the process. It was a little mysterious to me then, but having since begun to do Feldenkrais work, certain aspects of why this process was producing these results in me has become clearer.
My running and breathing project was constructed one pebble at a time, by intuition, trial and error. It never gave me the consistently positive effects I have found in the two hundred or so ATM lessons I have done to date, but looking back, I think that on the days that I felt significant “changes” (using Feldenkrais vocabulary again), it was from similar processes at work. Most simply put, on those occasions I think I found a more pleasurable way to move by using a musical game to bring more attention, organization and coordination to the movements of my body and breath. I was discovering through a somewhat inane procedure that a bodily “exercise” could become more pleasurable by transforming it into something more like dancing.
This was a world apart from other running experiences I’d had (you know the kind where you are thinking something like “HUH! . . . UH! . . . one more mile! . . . UH! . . . keep going! . . . UH! . . . gotta lose weight! . . . HUH! . . . almost there – don’t stop! . . . HUH-UH HUH-UH HUH-UH!”)!
(Interestingly, during my most recent Feldenkrais training session, one of our teachers used a similar technique. She had a student who said she regularly attended a movement class set to music walk around the room while imagining the music from this class, coordinating her stride with the sounds in her mind. Before this she had simply asked the student to walk with no particular thought in mind. Once the mental music was activated, the difference was dramatic enough that those of us observing could see it; the movement was less stiff, more flowing. And the student reported that she could feel the difference, too.)
There is a problem with the concept of exercise based on the idea of improvements achieved through repetition if this repetition is carried out mechanically and mindlessly (the extreme case would be the person running on a treadmill while watching television – mind and body completely disconnected!). I was discovering that an activity I had engaged in for years, running, could be made suddenly new again by making my mind an active participant in the process. Now the repetitions became more rhythmic, coordinated, and open to the possibility of variation.
Others are much better qualified than I to explain the details of the highly sophisticated system of subtle physical movements and guided mental explorations that constitutes the work and produces the astonishing outcomes of the Feldenkrais Method. But early on, I clearly understood one thing that the founder of the method always emphasized was the ultimate aim of his life project. Simply put, he aimed to help people achieved their “unavowed dreams.” And, of course, I have always had my own dreams since long before I’d ever heard of Feldenkrais. Eventually I realized that my running and breathing game was something I was doing in pursuit of these dreams.
Dreams of any kind might be realized through great efforts, but paradoxically, they also might be attained through letting go of effort completely. While rolling on the ground for an hour in an Awareness Through Movement lesson, the student is instructed to always use the minimum necessary effort to make a movement. Gains can be made in flexibility, posture, ease of movement, and overall sense of wellbeing. Yet these improvements often come about almost by surprise if one attends to oneself and never succumbs to the temptation to try to improve by pushing one’s self to the limit (as is essentially the slogan of many exercise systems, not to mention our society more generally). I think that understanding – and beginning to act on – this paradox is at the heart of what Feldenkrais called “learning how to learn.”
While running and breathing was often just the backdrop for all manners of meditation, soul searching and daydreaming, when I put it squarely in the foreground of my thoughts and focused, I made a direct connection between the coordination of my body movements and breath patterns with the rhythmic ideas I am developing in the Beeayboll project. Without intending to, on the days I went jogging (and breathing, and counting, and listening…), I often had fresh new ideas about where I could take my music.
By running and intently listening for my body’s rhythms, then imagining these rhythms as some kind of music that could be expressed externally, I began to feel that I was amplifying an internal song that was already there. I noticed not only the frequency of my breaths, but their pitches, and how they varied as the air went in and out. I noticed the sounds of my feet striking the ground. I noticed my heart’s rhythm and compared it with the rhythm of my feet.
I also started to wonder if I could affect another kind of “translation.” Was it possible that a piece of music, conceived and defined as a melody or rhythm could transform itself into internal body movements (or, if I wore headphones, would I run differently listening to free jazz than samba)? Could musical harmony be a tool to resolve physical dissonance? Could my body teach my mind something about how to write beautiful music?
In particular, at this moment I was very focused on a new idea in my life: that being conscious of one’s breath and learning how to slow it down and make it fuller can be a road towards greater calm and self-control throughout all aspects of one’s life. My primary motivation for actively seeking out this new space was always the desire to bring into the world the music that I was hearing in my imagination. However, now I began to wonder if I shouldn’t also try to discover what music I might imagine that could help me to slow down my breath and relax my body.
Thus, I was simultaneously running and composing, listening and meditating, sensing and asking questions, proposing answers and testing these conclusions and thereby discovering – always – more questions. In this way, I started to think of the music and the breath as being essentially the same thing.
I still haven’t gotten very specific about the breathing patterns I was using or how I used them. But having drawn a line from this breath work to my musical thinking, I think that first it might be useful to take a little detour into my musical past.
The Braxton school of rhythm
The perhaps somewhat odd idea that manipulating my breath patterns while running would be useful for my understanding of rhythm had two points of origin.
Firstly, I was still in the very earliest stages of my self-training to become a beatboxer (or vocal percussionist, if you prefer), trying to get the point of making vocal beats that sounded more like drums than a bunch of huffing and puffing (this is what beatboxers call ‘breath control’ – see first four posts to this blog). Secondly, after years of using singing, whistling and other forms of vocalization to help pass the time in various industrial workplaces, I had observed that physical work and the momentum generated by internal rhythms of the body in motion seem to create a platform for vocal music with entirely different possibilities than what is available when one stands mostly still, such as is often done when performing for an audience or making a recording.
Somehow, a ridiculous idea formed in my head: if I can teach myself to beatbox while running, then I will have truly mastered breath control!
My initial attempts to do exactly this resulted predictably in my choking and gasping for air and I quickly abandoned the idea that such a feat could be accomplished through direct practice. But as I thought more about exactly what kind of control of the breathing and vocal apparatus might be necessary to make music in motion in this way (and do it well), I began to discover some very interesting areas of experimentation. As I developed them, these explorations became a source of increasing satisfaction and an encouragement to continue.
One of the primary goals I set was to train myself to be able to breath in uneven rhythms while running, that is, rhythms that I might control by musical whim rather than by always drawing breaths in consistent cycles in tandem with the steady pulses of my heart and feet.
Years ago, my musical impulse was given a lifelong jolt of inspiration and energy by the experience of studying and working for several years with the composer and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, someone who can only be described as a true musical revolutionary. Among so many other experiences from that time that were permanently stamped into my musical soul was the roller coaster ride of trying to keep up with my part in some of his orchestral music.
In some rehearsals, Braxton could be heard counting bars in a familiar way, like this:
“1…2…3…4… / 1…2…3…4… /”1…2…3…4… / 1…2…3…4… etc.
But just as often, his counts were something more like this:
“1…2…3…4… / 1…2… / 1…2…3… / double time: …1!…2!…3!…4!…5!… /
original pulse: …1…2… / 1…2… /
and!… (an extra eighth note stuffed inside the quarter note pulse) / 1…2…3…4… /
and!… / hold… (a temporary suspension of metric time) /
. . . a fresh count at a slightly faster tempo: …1…2…3…4…5 /…1…2…3…4…5…etc.
(and I won’t bother to try to describe all the fluctuating rhythmic subdivisions and intervallic leaps we were supposed to be executing both on and between these “beats”!!)
Since that time I’ve been more interested in different time signatures and especially this kind of continual shifting of time signatures. Braxton’s music certainly isn’t easy to play, but I think that even my failed attempts to play it correctly probably reorganized whatever neural patterns my brain had previously developed related to rhythm.
And Braxton was always very clear that perfection wasn’t the goal. In most rehearsals that I participated in he would start by saying something like “let’s just kick it about and see what happens.” New faces in the group might look around in disbelief after seeing the scores or trying to keep up with the first few bars of one of the compositions. But invariably, Braxton, even in one of his more serious moods, would likely eventually comment, “alright people, we’re coming, we’re coming!” What he always said he was looking for most of all was not perfection, but some kind of a “surprise.”
To watch Braxton conduct an ensemble of experienced players is an amazing thing, both because of his dramatic dance-like movements and the movements of the sound itself. At times the music may seem jilting, but it can also be very smooth and carry a different kind of momentum than what is found in music with a consistent cyclical rhythmic foundation. Kind of like an expert driver speeding over a landscape of irregular hills and curves. Or perhaps it is more reminiscent of the ebbs and flows, irregular phrase durations, accelerations and decelerations, accents, shifts, stutters and other personality traits of spoken language.
Having already passed through the Braxton school, and then through some very different experiences that took me away from the daily practice of music for a period of time, I had a new kind of encounter with irregular and shifting rhythms that has also had a profound effect on my musical thinking.
The industrial school of rhythm (and motion)
About a decade ago, I began working in the meat packing industry. At first I worked at the most basic jobs such as making boxes, filling grinders, bagging up stew, wrapping cuts with bone guard (a waxed adhesive cloth), packing, sealing and palletizing boxes of product, and other odd jobs. Later, I would learn to work with a knife in a variety of manners, including trimming, cutting and boning, and also how to operate an electric band saw.
I have now worked in seven different meat production facilities of various types in three different cities and am currently employed in a provisioning house in Washington DC that supplies local restaurants and food suppliers with meat cut to exact specifications. I work five nights a week from 9pm until 5am. At some point I intend to write in detail about these experiences, but for now I will focus only on how they have influenced my musical ideas, especially in the realm of rhythm.
Although each plant I have worked in has been distinct from the others in terms of its size, manner of organizing production, use of machinery and other features, as a musical person, there are two environmental features that have always impressed themselves upon me.
The first is the sonic environment of the factory. This too has differed greatly from plant to plant in many respects, but in nearly every case the following description would hold: a variety of machines, each with its own sound, are distributed throughout the space. Some make continuous sounds, while others pulsate rhythmically, and still others make noises periodically. The regularity, intensity or quality of all three of these sound types may alter at any given point during the many hours of a work shift, altering the overall relationship of sounds in the space.
For example, a thunderously droning generator may reach the end of a cycle and suddenly shut off, revealing quieter sounds that were previously drowned out. A pinning machine, which tenderizes large cuts of meat moving over a belt may process the last piece and continue pinning the empty belt for a period of time before someone shuts it off, a change that transforms a heavy pounding into a quieter and more hollow knocking sound while maintaining, for the most part, an identical rhythm. A vacuum sealer machine makes a sequence of sounds as a roller turns to move the sheet of packaging material into the area where air is sucked out and whooshingly expelled, then onto a blade that cuts it into individual packages that are spit out on to a table – until something gets stuck somewhere and a fantastic screeching works itself in amongst these other sounds and sweeps through different variations of pitch with each further protesting advance of the process.
And I haven’t said anything yet about the human sounds. These vary, of course, as well, but in every plant I have worked there have been a good number of singers of varying talent (but with a consistent lack of timidity!) belting out all manner of songs in various languages and eliciting all manner of responses from their involuntary audience of co-workers, from spontaneous harmonizing and mariachi laughs to catcalls, barking, howling and booing. Conversations often happen at great distances at full lung capacity and thus may be heard and joined at any moment by anyone else in the vicinity. Workers bang knives out of anger or boredom, drop things, stack trays, push around carts of different sizes (and often with busted wheels), and blow their noses into their coat sleeves. A supervisor yells at someone to work faster.
And in every plant where I have worked, various phrases or slogans coined by one or another colorful personality gets picked up by others and might be shouted out at any moment to liven things up. In my current workplace, one worker used to sing his own little one -line blues tune that went “short ribs! ALL night looooong . . .” It’s been years now since this man worked in the plant, but “ALL night long” is still a nightly refrain throughout the factory (although it’s manner of delivery has significantly changed, as has the context in which it is used).
Another worker likes to berate people he sees standing around when things get slow, yelling at the top of his lungs “You don’t wanna work? GO HOME!”, usually repeating it several times for effect. This too, has become a general method of abusive humor employed by a significant portion of the workforce. There are dozens more examples I could give. What I find fascinating about these common expressions is not merely their development in the social environment, but how they function musically, as a form of call and response.
So, the factory is a multi-layered and usually very loud sound environment that is in constant flux. To many I suppose it would simply be chaotic noise, but, in fact, it is usually possible to identify some basic elements of musical structure. For example, by listening carefully, one can usually locate a central tone and a dominant rhythm. When the combination of tones and rhythms remains static for a period of time, it is even possible to feel a kind of groove that might or might not make you dance, but will certainly influence your movement as you go about your work (nor am I the only one that notices: I often see co-workers bobbing their head to the “beat” of a machine or drumming out a polyrhythm on some nearby surface. Some even occasionally whistle improvised melodies in perfect unison with one or another mechanical rhythm in the air).
But just as often – and most interesting to me – the central tone, at any moment might unexpectedly shift, and so might the “down beat.” So if you were one of the singers in the plant (sometimes there are two or three simultaneously), you might find your happy song suddenly seeming to shift into a minor key as a new drone emerges from somewhere. Or, if you were adventurous enough to try to dance to the factory’s “music”, without some very fancy footwork you’d often have a hard time keeping your steps “in time” from one moment to the next. If it was possible to count the beats, as if the music were composed, you might have to do it a bit like Braxton: count three beats, then four beats, five beats, then two beats – and be prepared at any moment to change tempo!
I could not help but be affected musically by the daily repetition of this kind of listening experience, especially since I myself am often singing, beatboxing or chanting the Beeayboll language to myself as I work. And since I usually like to try to feel “in tune” and “on the beat” with this fluctuating music all around me (is it just my “human nature”?), I have sometimes had to come up with new ways of thinking about how to create a rhythmic or melodic identity.
In particular, I have been fascinated with the question of how a musical identity could be malleable enough to adjust to match changes around it, yet still retain enough of its original personality to remain recognizable even as it transforms. A related problem is how to improvise in a flowing and harmonious manner on top of an irregular and unpredictable rhythmic and harmonic foundation without “going off the rails.”
But apart from this dynamic soundscape, there is a second aspect of my experiences in industry that has significantly impacted my rhythmic sense. It is an experience that connects to the sounds of the factory, but something that would have affected me even if all these plants had been perfectly silent, even if I were to have always worked in silence. This is the demand of the work itself on my body.
As detailed above, I have at different times carried out numerous different tasks, but, again, certain features stand out. The most obvious feature is that the work is most often repetitive and carried out under external pressure to perform quickly. This is especially the case when the physical work is tied to a non-human mechanical rhythm such as the movement of a conveyor belt or some other machine. Since training in how to work safely, efficiently and ergonomically is rarely a priority of management, learning these movements usually takes place in a distorted manner which, at worst leads to accidents and injuries and at best is still a quite slow apprenticeship.
One terrible experience I had in a huge facility in Los Angeles was trying to learn how to trim cuts of ham as they cruised by on a conveyor belt with an electric knife (imagine a more vicious version of an electric toothbrush, a stick with a ring on the end containing a small spinning serrated blade). The cuts of meat were usually stacked close enough that they were touching, and then, every once in a while, two cuts would be stacked one on top of the other, so that it was necessary to pull one off, trim two cuts at twice the normal speed, and then return to the original relentless pace. This continued without pause for hours, only stopping for lunchtime or when something somewhere mercifully broke down and stopped production.
I was hopeless at this job and was reassigned to a less skilled position after only a couple of days. While I was there, plenty of hams passed by me untouched (making more work for my co-workers further down the line) and the ones I managed to reach were much more often gouged than trimmed. I must have messed up my hands and wrists, but what I remember most vividly was the unbearable pain throughout my entire back as a result of failing to keep the pace which meant I was leaning my whole body to the right, with all my weight on one foot for hours on end while my arms flailed about with the knife (a musical corollary of this experience, while probably less drastic, might be experienced by the amateur instrumentalist straining beyond their abilities to achieve a fast tempo or large intervallic leaps while playing with more capable band mates, and translating the efforts into excessive tension in one or another part of their body).
I could tell many more stories like this (although none as dramatic as could be told by a worker from one of the big slaughterhouses where the fastest and most brutal work of the industry takes place), but that is not my purpose here. Rather, my interest is to discuss how the body develops a unique kind of rhythmic sense when, by hook or crook, one does, despite whatever odds, learn to successfully perform these tasks. In fact, conquering the challenge of performing a manual task in tandem with a high-speed non-human partner, in the best case (injury free) scenario can lead to the development of surprising feats of dexterity (here, the musical parallel might be the positive flipside of the ensemble example given earlier, where the group interaction stimulates the individual musician’s learning and development beyond what can be accomplished through solitary practice).
But beyond efficiency of movement, standing and working with one’s hands for hours at a time also requires endurance, something that is aided by developing a certain kind of rhythm or momentum with ones actions. While the performance of the dullest and most repetitive industrial tasks can sometimes be reduced to an easily identifiable beat, more often – even when working in tandem with a constantly gyrating machine – industrial work involves a much less than perfect repetition due to different kinds of interruptions or slight variations in each new instance of the task.
For example, I may trim twenty veal loins in a row, but they are each of a different size and some have less fat than others, while others might be deformed in some way, altering my task in some way. As I cut portions to a customer’s specifications, I may cut one steak to the correct weight with one stroke of the knife, but cut the following steak too large and thus need to trim it and re-weigh it a couple of times. In these or other similar circumstances, I may repeat the same motions, but each time I complete the task in a slightly different amount of time. The different components of each cycle may form a slightly different pattern than the previous instance. So, if I try to work in time to a consistent rhythm, it won’t take long before I’m ‘off” and need to find my “downbeat” again to restart.
Are most workers in the factory thinking about the work in these musical terms? No, assuredly not. Nor am I, most of the time. But when I am working well (and, by my observations, I am guessing this is true for some of my co-workers, also), I often feel like I am dancing. Perhaps the job is mostly accomplished with my hands, but for some reason, I bounce back and forth between my two feet as I work. At times, not particularly knowing why, I may pause between cuts to bang my knife against the table three times before resuming. As I sharpen my knife, I seem to determine the number of swipes across the steel not only by my perception of the knife’s edge, but a feeling of wanting to make the motion a certain number of times, of wanting to hear a certain number of sounds.
My guess is that the areas of my brain working at these moments overlap with the areas that are activated when I am making music. These extra “musical movements” may be either reactions to other music I am perceiving in my environment, or gestures that seem to finish a phrase begun by preceding task-fulfilling actions, or both.
Within all this movement, both the extraneous and the necessary, I believe there is a factor of some kind of rhythmic elasticity. Whether or not one is thinking musically, I’d surmise that as the body performs any physical task there are certain motions within a sequence of movements that are likely to be punctuated or more strongly accented than others. When the same sequence of movements is carried out repeatedly, if there are three or four strong accents within perhaps a dozen or more movements, the repeating appearance of those accents within the larger stream of actions might begin to suggest a kind of recognizable rhythm or, at least, a somewhat regular series of downbeats. But the unevenness of these “beats”, the constant slight variance in the time elapsing between the recurrence of any of the signal movements, would seem to run counter to the hope of ever “recognizing” a coherent rhythm.
Luckily, there is a simple way that these musical problems are resolved – or not. And that is the simple fact that the body isn’t trying to make music, it’s just working! But just as John Cage showed that open-minded ears hear music in any sonic environment, I find it interesting to listen to the music of the body as it performs a “non-musical” task. What is particularly interesting to me is my own experience that the body’s performance of the task seems to improve as it becomes “more musical.” And when one is dancing to one’s work, and working at a repetitive task that is almost rhythmic, in my mind, the possibility of flowing, human, and potentially beautiful – almost rhythmic – music can be imagined. Conveniently enough, I have found that this working dance “fits” perfectly to the uneven and constantly recalibrating rhythms of the “music of the factory” that I described earlier.
One idea that intrigues me and I have begun to investigate more deeply is how a musical identity can be defined by the repetition of a particular sequence of sounds, regardless of the duration between them. This is not unlike the “music” created by the almost repetitive motions of some work.
For example, I used to delight in cutting short ribs on the band saw (after Mr. “All Night Long” vacated the position) because of the very consistent – yet elastic – phrasing of the dance. After filling a tank with thick plastic-wrapped packages, four short ribs in each, I would push it to my workstation and turn the saw on: PSH! – VVVVVVVVVV . . . . The resulting whirring drone was the backdrop for the following (almost) repeating cycle:
– I reach into the tank with my hook to stab into a package [POK!] and pull it down the side to remove the plastic casing [SHREH-SHHHH!]
– I pick up one of the ribs, lift it from the tank, swing it into the air and then slam it down onto the tray table of the saw (BANG!)
– with one hand on each side I spin it around on the table then flip it upright and sideways in order clip off the uneven front edge with the saw blade – as the blade passes through the bones it’s low hum is interrupted briefly with a high screechy tone [ZEEP!]
– I flip the rib upside down [CLUNK!] and sideways again [CLUNK!] to knock off excess fat from the bottom side, making another high tone with the blade [ZEEP!]
– Now I begin to pass the whole rib, about a half a foot in length through the blade many times, cutting a series of portions. Each cut produces the higher tone, but now the tones are longer and slide down to a slightly lower pitch as the rib passes through from one side to the other, slowing down the speed of the blade [ZEE-RRRRP! . . . ZEE-RRRRP! . . . ZEE-RRRRP! . . . ]
In the description above, any of the sounds indicated might get repeated an extra time or two, the duration between the sounds will vary and other sonic events may periodically interrupt. These variations can be due either to changes in the demand of the work itself (eg., different sizes of short ribs that I am cutting) or due to conscious or semi-conscious musical impulse that I impose into the task as I transform the chore into a performance to entertain myself and get a little closer to punching out and going home.
Over time, like anyone would, I developed increasing facility and comfort in the work. Far from the least important aspect of this process was slowly conquering the fear of losing my fingers (while still always maintaining the minimum necessary of what a supervisor in a previous plant had called “having respect” for the saw blade).
(Years earlier, my first experience with a band saw came behind a Los Angeles supermarket seafood counter where we served customers while they waited. Some wanted the fish split, and to my disbelief co-workers demonstrated that you hold the slippery thing between your two palms and push it through the blade directly in front of you. Thus your hands feel the breeze of the flying metal teeth and your body and face move closer to the blade as you extend your arms forward (how relaxed does your body feel just reading about it?). It was totally insane and I refused to do it until the day that co-workers refused to it for me because they had their own customers to wait on. Thus for a lousy wage, I did this for a period of time (luckily it didn’t last long), rather than doing the sensible thing and quitting.)
To return to the adjustable structure of the repeating sonic identity that I perceived as music while cutting short ribs: the saw blade – an undeniable reality of life – creates a problem for this music of mine if I am wedded to idea that phrases must adhere to a strict pulse or that a phrase must end in a certain number of beats. I might endure a frown from a listener in order to play a funny sounding guitar lick, but I won’t surrender any fingers just to finish my short rib melody “on time.” So, again, I found myself in what felt like a musical situation – a truly enjoyable one – but it didn’t add up to most of what I’d been taught about rhythm. I was moving with momentum to a strongly felt “groove”, but restarting each cycle of movement (and sound) at irregular intervals.
By this time familiar with these conundrums, I applied the experiment that what has worked for me most often and asked, “what if this music was language?”
Having thought about this for a few more years, I think there is a handy metaphor available. In speech, we deliver our ideas sequentially in the form of words whose order is loosely governed by the grammar and syntax of our native tongue. However, we can express our ideas succinctly or at length. We can pause and say “um” thirteen times or not. We can choose different words than would be chosen by another. These things do not fundamentally change the meaning of what we say, but they certainly affect the duration and the rhythm of our speech. For example, it’s not hard to imagine a conversation, such as a dead-end argument, where one or both participants repeat the same idea over and over with only slight variations in wording.
As I cut short ribs, creating a series of distinct sounds from a beginning to an end before repeating the process, maybe it was not unlike a thought or sentence. How I get from one packaged rib to a dozen or so weighed portions on the tray may vary in each individual case, but the end result is always the same.
* * *
All of these ideas, fundamentally about borrowing structural elements of language and applying them in music are already present in my own vocal music. There isn’t really any barrier to doing this except for a willingness to “break rules.” But myself singing alone – defined in language terms – is simply a monologue. I want to begin to create ensemble contexts for musical discussions that can access structure in this sense on both sides of the “divide.” Free improvisation, something I have a lot of experience with, does open up this possibility in the sense that there are no longer any “wrong notes”, but it fails in that no structure is the only structure, rather than having the true freedom to be flexible structurally – like a pair of bilingual friends deciding where and when to use each of their vocabularies.
I have begun to test the necessity of patterns of language and music that I encounter that strike me as having strong foundations only in our habit of thinking of music and language as separate things. I am now trying to develop situations to invite others to have some of these experiences as well. I have been lucky to have a few experiences of this nature already, including many that I have not described here. I am confident that it is a wide-open field ready for explorations that will bear many fruits for many people of many varied backgrounds and interests…
Rhythm, Feldenkrais, and the Beeayboll Project
Now, having taken a long detour, I can begin to head back in the direction of describing my experiments with running and breathing, why they are related to the rhythmic ideas of my Beeayboll Project, and why the Feldenkrais Method has given me a clearer understanding of how to develop these ideas, both conceptually and within the body.
The music of Anthony Braxton (as I have described it here), the music of the industrial production environment, and the music inside the body of the industrial worker – in each case produce a rhythmic experience entirely unlike most other music. Normally, whether it’s classical, folk, rock ‘n’ roll, salsa, techno or polka, one can usually find a regular pulse to tap one’s feet to, or clap the hands. And if one felt the adventurous urge to change one’s tapping or clapping speed or vary the number of beats between strong accents, one would soon find themselves on less solid ground in relation to the rest of the band (and were the musician unperturbed by such a shift in terrain underfoot, they still might find difficulty gaining social acceptance of their unorthodox strategy by peers or audience – a hurdle that has stopped many musicians from developing beyond cliches, while many innovators have had to cross this barrier and endure a period of rejection in order to discover new musical forms).
Experimenting with patterns of phrases of varying lengths – eg, two then five then three, then four then two, against four bars of recurring “ONE, two, three, four…” (which, with a total of 16 beats, would come out quite tidily at the end, even if the middle felt uncertain) – requires a certain ability to ignore one’s environment. And should one simply wish to play a melody in certain key that for a longer duration than the one in which the harmonic structure of a song continues to support it, one is simply out of luck – or, at the very least, “out of tune!”
These kinds of situations create what one might call a compulsion – or, at least, a very strong habit – of trying to play inside of a song’s rhythmic and harmonic structure. One might object to the terms “compulsion” as I have used it here by asking what is wrong with “keeping good time” in music – if you can’t do that, you don’t know what you’re doing, right? And why would anyone want to be out of tune?
But, I am now thinking of compulsivity in the sense that Feldenkrais uses the term.
Compulsive behavior patterns are such not because they are necessarily bad in and of themselves, but because they are carried out with no sense that another, different pattern might be available as an alternative. The exact same behavior, enacted as a conscious choice as one of many options, is no longer compulsive. Whether influenced more by fears of social rejection or simply the strong gravitational pull of a musical groove, I would venture to say that the musician who only plays clichés is a musician for whom the idea of disrespecting the down beat scarcely or never occurs.
(and, for the story of a musician who was often shunned, but shattered clichés and revolutionized modern ideas of harmony by not worrying about other’s ideas of being in tune, please learn about the life of Ornette Coleman! . . . )
On the other hand, in non-musical contexts, it seems to me that humans are constantly demonstrating the ability to express themselves without reference to a regularly accented rhythm. The most obvious example I can think of is human speech. Leaving aside poetry and musical lyrics, every day speech is quite irregular, rhythmically. Yet, in this non-musical context, no one finds anything disarming in hearing a series of phrases of unequal length, nor does the fluent speaker stutter as he or she delivers them. Again, this hardly seems like a remarkable observation – unless one is willing to entertain the idea that speech is music!
A fascination with the idea that speech is musical, and explorations of the idea of music as speech (and all other imaginable permutations) are the heart of what my Beeayboll Project is all about. When I perform Beeayboll, ultimately I would like to develop the ability to seamlessly move between these two modes of expression. If one accepts my descriptions of how humans tend to approach rhythm when making music versus speaking, one might begin to see the challenge involved in a happy marriage of the two. Improvising with another important term from Dr. Feldenkrais, I might call what I’m looking for “rhythmic reversibility.”
In his utterly fascinating book, The Potent Self, Feldenkrais says that reversibility is a key feature of all efficient action. “At every instant or stage of a correct act, it can be stopped, withheld from continuing, or reversed without preliminary change of attitude and without effort.” Reversibility is only achieved when there is “fine control of excitation and inhibition.” And, he adds, “the test of reversibility holds good for all human activity whether it is viewed from the physical or emotional standpoint.”
Drawing on this definition, reversibility in music, or rhythmic reversibility, might be thought of in many ways, but for me it relates to a quite specific thing. Can I construct a phrase of any length, on any pulse at any given moment, without reference to the phrase that preceded it? The most honest answer for the time being would have to be a resounding “no!”, but it is a goal that motivates me.
For example, a game I sometimes play while improvising is to count to random numbers in my head and try to construct a series of phrases of differing lengths according to the sequence of these numbers. Other times I will be making music in a recognizable time signature such as 4/4, but I will insert “fill” phrases of differing lengths such as 7/8 or 5/4 between the 4 beat bars. Or I will rapidly alternate between singing (regular meter) and speech-like (irregular meter) expression.
My goal is to do these things “naturally”, that is, not as a “game” or a “strategy,” but rather because I reach a point of rhythmic comfort where I can “turn on a dime”, so to speak, and head off in a new direction whenever I choose.
As I have often practiced and performed my music unaccompanied, and as someone who played bass for many years, I have often thought of the patterns that I sing not simply as melodies, but as the foundation structure of my music. That is to say, that if another musician were to join me, I am just as interested in how this new voice could make music that would fit “on top” of my irregular phrasing as to whether my irregular phrasing might be rendered more digestible by being placed above a consistent rhythm.
If this is the “physical” aspect of reversibility, then the “emotional standpoint” might be a total lack of attachment to the idea of rhythmic regularity as a necessity, but the simultaneous capacity to enjoy it at any moment free from indulgence in any absurd avant-garde sectarianism that would label any regular cyclical rhythm as conformist (a point of view that I actually held at one point). These ideas of rhythmic reversibility as I understand them extend beyond the experience of musical performance to also include the realm of musical composition.
Running and Breathing (part two)
As a composer and vocalist developing my own musical system based on the idea of merging the sounds and rhythms of language and music, learning how to conquer a shifting time world of this kind and thus reap its benefits has been a goal of mine for a long time. In my first post here (June 2011), I wrote:
“I recently carried out what now appears to me as something almost revolutionary inside the scope of my own life when I began to consciously work with my breath in the course of struggling to train my body to make the music that has been trapped in my mind (and soul) for years. To my amazement, some of this music is now beginning to come out…”
When I began applying conscious breathing to my running routine, and as I developed a kind of running “breath song,” it was this challenge of performing rhythms I was hearing that seemed to bounce back and forth between musical and speech-like patterns that constituted my primary motivation. The process began by mistake. Then I tried to systematize it.
I had read somewhere online that a good breathing program for running was to inhale for three paces, then exhale for two, and on hills to switch to an even two and two. Whether or not that’s the best advice, it’s the advice I took, and I applied it for weeks on end. As 3+2+3+2+3+2 etc. (a 5/4 time signature) became a more familiar pattern inside my body – I started to also develop certain repeating melodic phrases to fit these durations which I sang in my head as I jogged. After some time I began to suspect that these melodies were playing a biological role of their own, feeding back into the work of my body. Whether or not this was true, I began to experiment with the possibility that it was.
I started asking myself what mental melodies would make me breath better and somehow arrived at the answer that (in my case, anyways) it seemed to help to imagine ascending melodies while inhaling and descending notes or low tones on the exhales. I looked for musical ways to generate more momentum. For example, one of the solutions I arrived at was to modulate my melodies up and down at regular intervals to create periodic harmonic cadences on a different time scale than the 5-pace breath cycle (ie, in two successive cycles I might sing the same interval, but start every other cycle on a different home tone). While I didn’t make any change in my physical movements, I imagined that this additional mental auditory pendulum might give me more forward momentum in the physical plane. And at times I felt, in my body, as if this conclusion was true.
When “shifting gears” from breathing 3+2 to 2+2 for uphill running, I encountered new problems and solutions to be solved with a musical body. First of all, I found that even while I counted groups of five, unavoidably I always seemed to count the larger phrases in groups of four. In other words, I always seemed to feel a larger cycle of four five-beat phrases. I believe this is a common phenomenon in music, perhaps for biological reasons related to our structure. A call elicits a response. A call and response elicits a second call and response.
In any case, if I arrived at a hill during the second or third of a group of four phrases, I found that a difficulty arose in switching patterns – and time signatures – if I tried to do so immediately at the moment that I hit the incline. This damaged the flow of my breath and movement because it interrupted the four-phrase cycle before its completion. On the other hand, if I would finish all four phrases of 3+2 (even if I had already begun to climb the hill), my body was now able to accomplish the switch to 2+2 smoothly. I imagined this moment and carrying off the transition successfully not unlike the moment in a rock and roll song where the verse arrives at the chorus.
As I continued my explorations, a guiding principle – similar to my goals as a musician and composer as outlined above – was to try to learn what music my body seemed to want to make most naturally and easily and then learn how to expand beyond those basic inclinations; or, conversely, how to train my body to integrate seemingly less natural patterns into a smooth flow (the proof being not only the melodies in my head, but also the ability to continue happily running – and breathing – to this rhythmically irregular music).
As I pondered how to smooth out the musical speed bump in my body at the shift between 3+2 and 2+2 it occurred to me to look to their common denominator. That is, since I was already marking groups of four phrases of 5/4 time – 20 beats – I decided I would count my 4/4 pattern in groups of five phrases – again, 20 beats.
I began to mark a regular, deeper cycle of 20 beats in my body regardless of the time signatures of my shifting breath patterns and the terrain below my feat. At first, this seemed like an improvement. However, it created a new problem, a musical structure that seemed in conflict my body’s inclinations. By grouping phrases together in fives I now had a call and a response, another call and response, a call – and no response!
My solution here was to make the odd an even by doubling it. My memory is that the melodic material here was nothing more a single pitch, shifting up and down by an octave. The tones were coordinated with my breath as I described it earlier, the high tone coinciding with my inhalations and the low tone with the exhalations. Having re-imagined the 20-beat cycle as 40 beats, I now re-imagined what had been the problematic groups of five four-beat phrases as four ten-beat phrases. This created a new musical sensation in the body as well – in part satisfying, and yet again in another way, disconcerting.
Whereas the most natural musical breath would seem to begin with the inhalation and end with the exhalation (James Jordan, in his book The Musician’s Breath, makes a very interesting argument about why this is true on many levels), I had now replaced my in-out pattern with two alternate breath-phrases: “in-out-in-out-in” followed by “out-in-out-in-out.”
I immediately noticed a feeling of being suspended when I ended the first phrase by inhaling a high tone and started the next phrase by exhaling a low tone. It was necessary to breath the second phrase to the end with its stronger cadence to feel grounded again in my physical body. Noticing this additional incongruity I decided to experiment with it as well and began reversing the order of both my 3+2 and 2+2 patterns in order to start patterns – and feel downbeats – while I exhaled. This was one more thing that my body didn’t seem to know how to do naturally to begin with, but was able to improve at rapidly once it gained some experience.
My composition developed this way for some time with a section in 5/4 time and another in 4/4 time. Sometime during all of this, I read Conscious Breathing by Gay Hendricks. At one point, Hendricks suggests that while our natural response to physical exertion is usually to breath faster, that if we consciously breathe slower and deeper, even while doing exercise, we can increase our stamina. Adopting this suggestion, I now decided to rewrite my entire composition!
So, I doubled my durations and began breathing in for six steps and breathing out for four steps on flat stretches and breathed cycles of four beats when climbing hills. I also added a new pattern now. Reversing the logic of a more stable pattern for uphill running, I began to use a more lopsided pattern for downhill running (my logic being that since the difficulty of running uphill necessitated a simpler pattern, perhaps the relative ease of running downhill provided the opportunity to explore a more complex one).
While running down hill I now took seven steps breathing in, followed by a shorter out-in-out pattern: 2-3-2. Periodically, I replaced this four-part 14-step pattern with a three-part 14-step pattern: 7-4-3. This gave the effect of restarting the original pattern again with the exhalation instead of the inhalation.
(A similar effect of counting lopsided patterns while running that I had already noticed was the feeling of the strong beats shifting between my two feet. Hendricks suggests that runners should breathe evenly and slowly in coordination with their paces, but always counting odd numbers in order that the “accent” will alternate between the two feet to avoid a feeling of extra weight on one side. This is an idea that fascinates me to this day and I often apply when I notice an imbalance in my gait that seems like a limp to one side. Am I unconsciously counting “ONE, two, ONE, two . . . “? I have found that consciously marching to a three-beat count for a time seems to smooth out the imbalance somewhat, even without consciously thinking about redistributing the work of my muscles.)
Once all these patterns became very familiar to me, I tried to further embellish the mental music that I sang inside of them. On the one hand, I was simply trying to make the music more interesting. On the other hand, as I had committed by body to conforming to these odd numerical patterns, increasing the musical interest helped to escape the endless counting while keeping true to the original durations.
The “composition” now had three distinct sections, each with different time signatures, corresponding to music for running uphill, downhill, and on flat ground. And inside each section, the music was also getting more complicated. I thought many times of transcribing the melodies that I had arrived at, but I never did.
* * *
Perhaps in part because I never tried to put this music on to paper, eventually the “composition” began to unravel. This didn’t concern me since the experiment had already gone further than I had originally imagined and I wasn’t quite sure why I needed a highly worked out piece of mental music to accompany my exercise in any case! However, while it lasted, the experience of the correspondence between this music and the inner sensations of my body in motion was instructive in a number of ways. And, as it turned out, the disintegration of the composition contained further insights.
The usual way this happened was that I would forget some aspect of a musical pattern and “play it wrong.” As a result, I might continue the “downhill pattern” into flat terrain, change a pattern by counting too few or too many breaths, or flip the relationship of the inhalations and exhalations to my running “downbeats”. At other times, as a result of forgetting my pattern, I might hold my breath for several paces – while tried to remember what is the next number?! – an act that always seemed to produce a corresponding musical “rest” in my mind (when the “conductor” found his place in the score again, the music recommenced).
As these musical mistakes also produced new sensations in my body, I became interested in them and began to make mistakes deliberately. Eventually I allowed myself the freedom to count any of my patterns at any time and switch between them after any number of repetitions, including sometimes breaking them off halfway through. As I became a more flexible improviser with my mental music, my body simultaneously got used to feeling a broader vocabulary of accents, shifts, suspensions and other phenomena in order to keep the time.
If you imagine singing someone Happy Birthday, you know that the longer the name of your friend is, the faster you’ll have to sing it to fit it into its lyrical placeholder in the melody. Or, as I’ve often noticed happens, you might slow down the tempo of the whole tune when you get to that part. But what would happen if you not only tried to sing your friend’s first name, but also added her middle and last names, address, phone number and social security number? You’d probably chant this whole laundry list on the same two pitches as usual (take a second to remember the melody . . .), but time would have to be essentially suspended until you caught up to the normal phrasing of the song again. It would now be a very different musical idea, but still unmistakably “Happy Birthday.”
As I ran with my breath song, but grew tired of holding it so tightly inside of its original patterns, the music went through similar kinds of alterations, while retaining its basic identity. If I breathed “too many” paces to retain the patterns I had memorized, the melodies in my head, having been repeated so often, wouldn’t fall apart, but notes would be held out longer, reiterated or replaced by extra embellishments or rests. Now that the outline was already so firmly established, even if I altered the number patterns (or simply flubbed them), the song essentially remained the same.
At some point in this process, I had a phone conversation with my old friend Ed Kasparek, a musical buddy and someone with a lot more running experience than me. I described some of my experiments and asked if he ever counted breaths, assuming that this was common practice among serious runners. Instead, he surprised me by saying he never did this, but at the same time, that he always knew when he was running whether or not he was breathing well.
The next day, taking a cue from Ed, I tried to avoid counting altogether (not without difficulty, given how ingrained the habit had become), while continuing to focus on my breath. Now, I began to develop other kinds of experiments with my breath. One was to focus on the breath sound and see how it related to the breath sensation and the overall running experience. After some experimentation, I decided that the quieter the breathing, the smoother it must be, the noisier breathing being the result of something somewhere in the vocal tract vibrating that must also be obstructing the air flow. Without trying to discover exactly what that was, I tried to breath more quietly while I ran.
Likewise, I noticed my natural breathing habit produced a higher pitch when I inhaled and a lower one when I exhaled (perhaps this is why I had chosen high and low tones respectively when ‘singing along’ in my head?). I experimented with trying to hold one single pitch as I breathed in and out, something that required concentration to sustain (you can try it: breath heavily in and out of your mouth for a few breaths . . . then start listening to the sound of the air . . . are the in-stream and out-stream on the same pitch? . . . what needs to adjust in order to make them the same? can you maintain this while moving actively? . . . while breathing through your nose?)
I also tried singing different pitches in my brain in correspondence with my breath and seemed to feel that this changed the shape of my vocal tract (an idea that would be supported by what I later learned in the Feldenkrais Method where lessons often involve imagining movements without doing them, which does in fact produce subtle changes in those body areas because the neural connections in the brain that send messages to those muscles have been activated). Once again, I seemed to have the most success in terms of breathing smoothly when imagining high tones for inhalation and low tones for exhalations.
Another mental exercise was to sing repeating melodic figures in my imagination without paying any particular attention to my breath or feet. Despite making no intentional connection between the music and my body’s movements, I did in fact sense that the vibrations set up by the imagined tones and rhythms began to create a physical echo that could I feel in my body.
Towards the end of the summer, heading home at the end of my run, I had an experience that made me feel that all these experiments were somehow paying off. I was running and counting or singing or imagining, I can’t actually quite remember, but whatever it was, I was interrupted by a very long train passing by on a bridge near my route, click-clacking loudly on a pulse that did not at all neatly fit with the music in my head. It was loud enough to overrule my rhythms, but since the train and I were headed in opposite directions, it didn’t take long before it faded out of the range of my ear. Still, it left it’s traces in my memory.
So I listened, inside again – and kept running: bah-bah, bah-bah, bah-bah, bah-bah, bah-bah, BAH!; bah-bah, bah-bah, bah-bah, bah-bah, bah-bah, BAH! A series of pairs that felt lopsided until a single pulse broke the pattern, but seemed to even it out: bah-bah, bah-bah, bah-bah, bah-bah, bah-bah, BAH! The pattern in my head remained the same, so I counted to see what it was: six even pairs, plus one more: thirteen.
I nearly jumped for joy. My body, in the process of digesting a combination of it’s own original rhythms and other rhythms in the environment, had processed them together and spit out . . . thirteen! A far cry from the “everyday” 4/4, yet I didn’t have to go out of my way to try to construct this “strange” time signature. Rather, it seemed to happen “naturally” as I listened, a product of my mind, my environment and my body in motion.
* * *
Beatboxing for several years has introduced me to the fact that there is a wide range of vocal expression available to us that we generally ignore: the sounds we can make while we inhale. I won’t enter into a discussion of this here and now, but I will simply say that as I have begun to develop more control over my vocal mechanism and explored this area, it has increased my expressive range considerably. Of course it has also perhaps augmented a tendency in my music that has often been critiqued – that it is too dense, there is too much information, that, in short, it doesn’t breathe.
James Jordan’s book, mentioned earlier, deals extensively with this point, the importance of the pause in order to complete a musical idea and give the opportunity for the next one to be born. This must be the case in the brain of the listener as well, and perhaps it is not unrelated to how we decide that some sound is music and another is language. This is another reason why I look to the Feldenkrais Method as a road forward, by learning to live more deeply inside my body and stop thinking of it as my vehicle, but as rather as my self. Just as gravity is a permanent feature of our environment, the breath is an inescapable biological necessity in every moment of our lives, a fact that must be kept in mind when using our voice to express ourselves.
Like our relationship to gravity, our relationship to our own breath determines the quality of our life. In Jordan’s words, the breath, through which we speak and sing, is “part of the connective tissue that connects the physical actions of our bodies and the intent of our spirit.”
A more potent ear?
I still have a lot of work to do.
Perhaps the largest challenge is to take the lessons of my own experience and figure out how to communicate them to others. I have always thought that teaching must be more difficult than learning. That is why Feldenkrais’ idea of teaching by creating the conditions for others to “learn how to learn” is so appealing to me.
Nor do I think that I have discovered anything entirely new. My exploration of the world shared by the domains of music and language comes on the heels of a very long lineage of artists whom I continue to discover throughout history and all around me today (I plan to write about some of these artists on a future occasion). Nor am I the first musician to become interested in different ways of counting rhythms and time. And there are already many healing traditions (most of which I know very little about) that associate specific sounds with different realms of the body and use music as medicine.
My personal interpretation of my experiments to date and my exposure to the work of Moshe Feldenkrais is an increasing faith in the idea that music can be a useful metaphor for life and how to navigate it successfully by singing our own song.
Feldenkrais had a very unique definition of the self that is constructed of three parts: the nervous system, its envelope (the body) and the surrounding environment. His method inspires changes within the nervous system by creating certain environmental conditions and directing the movements of the body (including the focus of ones thoughts which he also considered to fall in the category of “movement”). Awareness is a key tool in this process, and its development over time is one of the fruits of the work.
In my experience of growing up, I had very little experience with religion. But I did discover early on that music was the most reliable place to go when I felt that I was broken and needed to be made whole again. As a teenager I used to clear space in my room, turn off the lights, turn up the stereo, close my eyes . . . and dance. It was a bit of an escape, but while I was there, my nervous system was in heaven.
The recipe? Movement, attention and an environment constructed specifically to create the conditions for feeling what I wanted to feel. I remember very clearly that I imagined the music should not simply be audible, but rather fill the space, as water fills a pool, so that I could swim through it, that, no matter which way I went, it should always be in contact with every part of my body (my parents just thought I had the volume too loud!).
Most of the Feldenkrais practitioners that I have encountered so far periodically make use of a phrase that I find quite interesting in order to direct their students’ awareness. To get us to notice a particular place in our bodies, they will sometimes say “listen to your spine” (or pelvis or shoulder blades). They use other words as well, but I am always struck by the use of this term. Normally, we listen with our ears to what is happening outside of us. When we listen inside, I suppose we are still using our ears in this literal sense (at the very least, I know by experience that the sound of potato chips crunching between my teeth makes it hard for me to hear what you are saying), but I don’t think the practitioner is asking me to detect internal sonic phenomena.
Perhaps instead the direction is to do something closer to the other thing we have to do when we listen with our ears: we have to make ourselves quiet (I also have a hard time hearing what you are saying when I am trying to remember what I want to pick up at the grocery store or impatiently waiting for my turn to speak as I compose a supposedly brilliant turn of phrase). So, as I understand it, when I’m asked to listen to my spine, this means I have to stop listening to everything else that makes a claim on my attention.
Not everyone listens to music while spinning around in the dark, although I suspect I’m hardly the first person to try it (if you never have, I recommend it! – even if only once. I have long been convinced that dancing is the highest form of listening). However, when the listener does give herself over to a piece of music so completely, I think that in that moment, even if this was not the original intention, the composer’s creation now holds some of the same potential as a lesson in Awareness Through Movement. Moving inside this particular sonic environment gives my nervous system a particular experience that it doesn’t get anywhere else. Yet, what I learn is something I can take with me even after the final cadence – in part, because I can replay the music in my head whenever I wish.
What excites me to think about is that we can use our bodies to also create our own original rhythms and melodies – both in thought as well as in physical movements. We can feel these rhythms deeply inside, as we can also feel the rhythms of our environment. We express our music not only when we sing or play a musical instrument, but also when we speak or walk or dance, and this too is heavily influenced by our surroundings.
(I have already mentioned how I love to vocalize at work. But recently I have noticed that I often start vocalizing without thinking about it. In particular I respond almost without fail to the pinning machine I mentioned earlier, as it is near my workstation, and creates a loud drone and a heavy clunking rhythm. I find it infectiously inviting. It’s entrance into the sonic environment is not unlike the moment in a pop rock song when the drummer smashes the cymbals and picks up a heavy beat as the guitarist leaves behind a whimsical melody, steps on a distortion pedal and starts cranking out power chords. As an experiment, I started trying to inhibit my vocals in response to this machine, and found that I really had to work at it. I definitely had an ingrained habit. The advantage to including this option was the ability to listen more carefully to the sound of the machine itself without the ever-present filter of my own voice vibrating in my skull. I had increased my musical options).
My experimentation thus far has given me the impression that thinking of myself as a musical organism can be a very beneficial exercise. If I conceive of the movements of my body and mind as if they are musicians in an orchestra and work to bring them into deeper harmony, this can produce increased feelings of wellbeing. At the same time, musical creativity and invention, applied to the body might just be a tool for discovering new movement possibilities and experiences.
In his writings and teachings, Feldenkrais developed his ideas far beyond the realm of physical health to include how we construct (and reconstruct) our social and psychological selves. He taught his students to become more potent in pursuit of their life dreams by better understanding themselves from the inside out, thereby gaining an increasing facility for reorganizing their thoughts and actions to be in harmony with their environment(s – physical, emotional, social, and psychological). His discoveries and the achievements of his method in less than a century of its existence make the irrefutable case that the vast potentials of humanity remain largely untapped.
I need the Feldenkrais Method just as much or more than most people. I have all kinds of tangled knots to straighten out. Given my interests, I have always associated the idea of being able to faithfully translate my inner music to the outside world around me with untying all kinds of other binds. Perhaps other people can relate to my sense that creative expression can be not only beautiful, but also cathartic. When we gain enough artistic eloquence that we can take something that originated inside of us and paint something that will be recognized as beauty by other beings in our surrounding environment, this gives us a certain feeling of peace and belonging. Even if some react to what we create with disdain, that some others may still support us amidst the controversy gives us the sense that our view of the world is not entirely unfounded.
Music as a metaphor for life
My most recent experiences have led me to a couple hypotheses about untangling knots and expressing our inner selves that could possibly apply to others beside myself.
The first is that there is something about “being musical” that is related to survival.
[link is for a wonderful half-hour documentary that illustrates this point, comparing music and movement in Africa and Europe]
Music and life both take place in the field of time, which is always marching steadily forward. The game of the improviser, to feel the ground below one’s feet and what is happening all around, to remember the just-ended past moment that preceded the present (and still echoes in the body) and project the actions of the future (the about-to-be present) – and activate them – is essentially the same task as every other moment of life.
In movement, one has to be able to locate oneself in physical space, in part by remembering previous actions. Effective future actions depend in part on the ability to build an accurate mental image of what one will do which then serves as a kind of roadmap for the action itself. But music and movement are not confined only to the sonic and spatial environments. Just like the rest of life, they are also carried out in society.
Music may be performed by individuals in solitude for no one’s ears but their own, or by groups of humans performing together for many listeners. The setting for the performance may be inside a parked car, a teenager’s bedroom, a vast concert hall or a ceremonial dance in the middle of the wilderness. Some of these settings feel safer than others, and this depends on the person. Maybe it’s got something to do with knowing our self and our surroundings and how to create harmony between them.
One’s ability to express to the outside world what they are feeling and thinking inside also depends on their ability to listen and having some sense of timing. It depends in this sense on some “skills.” It also depends on one’s willingness to actually look inside and see what’s there. At least from the point of view of our relations with others, an inability to express ourselves is a terrible handicap and one that we greatly benefit from overcoming. Likewise, the inability to make oneself quiet enough to hear those who share our company is equally debilitating.
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My second hypothesis is that most people are lot more musical than they think. The first proof of this is that they are alive. If they can speak, that is a second proof. To have developed this much means they have already coordinated many parts, placed them in order and time, and know how to express themselves. Whatever musical “limitations” they have might be at least partly due to their concept of music. As I’ve suggested, one way to tap some of our unused musical potential is to expand our definition of music to the realm of human expression that we usually call language.
If a foreigner who didn’t speak your language was as fascinated as I am by streams of phonetic sound patterns, he would astonished at the musicality of your speech. Likewise if he tried to learn your language, whether to express himself musically or otherwise, he would consider the fluid sounds of your native tongue to be the very pinnacle of virtuosity, reaching to heights such as he could never dream to attain.
Above, I mentioned some possible settings for musical “performance.” Language, on the other hand is not something we usually think of as performing. It is more ordinary, every day, a necessary act, communication. The music of the foreigner’s conversation may be beautiful to your ear or not, but is less likely to be influenced by the desire for your approval than that of the concert performer. But if you don’t attach meaning to the words, the only meaning to be found is in the phonetic patterns, the rhythm of delivery, volume dynamics, emotional tone, and tonal movement – is this not where we find meaning in music?
“One of the most pernicious motivations that persists unrecognized in many of us is the longing for approval”, says Feldenkrais in The Potent Self. In my training program, this idea has been emphasized many times by our teachers as well. During the exercises we are constantly encouraged not only to “do less” but even to “do badly,” “make mistakes,” and “be willing to fail.” This is a crucial part of learning how to learn, perhaps the most musical skill of all: understanding that learning is not performing.
Music and language
I have been trying to complete the cycle of these thoughts for almost a year now!
What is written above has been re-read, edited and reworked a dozen times already. But in fact, I am no closer to anything I can tie up neatly with a bow. I hope that these meandering words will at least show a kind of a path forward that I am still exploring, flashlight in hand.
Of this much I am convinced: we all possess a little more music inside of us than we think. Being playful around the edges of what is already easy for us can be a way to discover some more of this music. In my case, a fascination with the musical sounds of speech has convinced me that there is a large realm of creativity open to those who would be willing to re-imagine their highly developed speech functions as a tool for a different kind of communication. Based on my own experimentation, I have begun to invent some strategies to invite other eager vocal explorers into this world. Thus far, I have run two interactive workshops concentrated on discovering the magic that lies somewhere in between music and language. There will be more.
I have only just begun to explore how Moshe’s Feldenkrais’ brilliant insights into human learning can help me advance along this path. Richard Corbeil, a long time Feldenkrais practitioner and trainer has created a series of lessons called “Vocal Integration,” which has provided me with some large clues (I highly recommend these lessons to any vocalist, whether or not you have other experience with the Feldenkrais Method). Feldenkrais himself created a wonderful lesson called “Equalize the nostrils” which includes the kind of variations I love, like speaking with the mouth shut.
These days, when I have a free moment, I often find myself playing with variations of word sounds, sometimes on the left side of my mouth, sometimes on the right, sometimes while inhaling, sometimes exhaling . . . sometimes I am at work, cutting steaks, imagining a sound without actually vocalizing, imagining that it is coming from the left side of the bottom of my throat, while breathing in some kind of deliberate pattern and shifting weight from the left foot to the right. Sometimes I stumble across new insights in these moments. Other times I realize I better stop doing this silly shit because I’m cutting all the steaks the wrong size!
Since I encountered the work of Moshe Feldenkrais about a year and a half ago, I literally feel “better than yesterday” on an almost daily basis. It is still astounding to me even after having progressed a little further and understood better the scientific logic behind why this work produces the results that it does. A crucially important part of my personal experience of feeling better has been a vastly improved ability to produce with my mouth the music that I hear inside myself.
Likewise, noticing some similarities between the way that Moshe organized his explorations and the way I was already experimenting, from the first days of the Beeayboll project to my more recent inquiries into running, counting and breathing, has given me more confidence – and a clearer method – for further investigation of those things that interest me. Many (though not all!) of those areas have been mentioned here, all of which are implicated when I think of the meaning of that simple phrase that I began with . . . in my own experience, the intersection of all these various roads, that I am still looking for, is where I expect to find the “real meaning” of breath control.