Practice vs Performance

While searching for something else I came across this old post from December of 2005, which I wrote while doing the Winter Rose Holiday Tour, with the added string quartet. I think it’s worth repeating.


When we practice we often concentrate on individual aspects or fragments of a performance. Fingering, sound-production, volume/dynamics, melody, rhythm are all aspects of a performance that can be practiced independently. Concentrating on one of these aspects will have wonderful results and is in fact essential for improving, but I think that concentration is not good for performing music.

When we concentrate on the flow of the melody, the rhythm will suffer and we might place notes too far in front of or behind the beat. When we concentrate on the rhythm we might place the notes exactly on the beat, but the melody will lack flow. When we concentrate on producing sound (right hand for most people), we might lose sight of the fingering (left hand). In other words, while fragmentation is a great way to isolate and practice a piece of music – or general aspects of posture, fingering, sound-production, volume/dynamics etc. – for a performance these fragments have to join to form one single element: the music.

In order for music to flow naturally, we have to allow the mind to flow and trust that it will bring attention to any single element that requires it. During a performance mind might flow like this:

the melody is a little behind the beat… nice, but don’t fall behind… the lights are hot in the back of my neck… right hand is a little sweaty… keep it steady – don’t listen to Davo (sounds like he’s doing sevens against the six)… ah, Jon is starting to improvise: don’t go back to the melody now… the second string sounds a little off – is it me or the violin… or both…

You see, concentrating on any one aspect of the performance would inhibit the flow of mind and that might get us stuck and when we get stuck even for a moment we won’t respond to the needs that are arising. Getting stuck is the worst that can happen in a performance. Two places we certainly do not want to get stuck in are: what I just played was so great AND what I just played really sucked! Both thoughts have the same result – the flow of music is impeded and the very next phrase will indeed suck…

By no means is this limited to music. When you cook and concentrate too much on one item, you’ll burn another… and I am sure we will find many more examples…

Under Stony Pine

IMG 6775

This is related to my recent post Rituals, Customs and Sentiments.

For a moment let’s pause all arguments for or against a higher power of any kind. What is left then are actionable techniques that work. They work because humans have experimented with them for millennia. Here is a quick list I wrote down while sitting in a park, under these marvelous Stony Pine trees… It’s an incomplete list, I am sure, but there is a lot here that could be taught to people of any or no faith.

    1. practice
      1. meditation
      2. prayer *
      3. yoga
      4. training compassion
      5. service
        1. feeding hungry
        2. attending to ailing
        3. cleaning
        4. cooking
    2. ceremony or rituals
      1. lighting incense
      2. lighting a candle
      3. fasting
      4. wearing special clothes, robes, or covering head
    3. gratefulness
      1. meal prayer/giving thanks for food
      2. daily reflection/giving thanks for people/situations
    4. movement, esp. synchronized or done in a group
      1. dancing
      2. tai-chi in the park
      3. bowing
      4. gestures
    5. music!
      1. singing together, hymns
      2. karaoke?
      3. listening to music (Bach on a church organ!)
      4. chanting
    6. architecture
      1. sacred buildings
      2. sound!
      3. scale!
      4. libraries?

* I think that prayer can be a practice and is not limited to communicating to a higher power. A prayer can be the focusing of one’s attention. It can be an expression of gratitude and thanks. It can state one’s intent.

Thanksgiving 2019

(the following are a few thoughts that went through my mind this Thanksgiving as I was snowed in. Since I was by myself I had time to write them down)

On this Thanksgiving day I want to acknowledge the gentle people. I think of the many native peoples who were erased from this earth [1], or enslaved. I think of visionaries and geniuses who were killed or imprisoned because they thought differently. I also think of women, who did not have access to education and, in too many places on this planet, still don’t. It also brings to my mind the many recluses and hermits who walked into the woods and mountains, to get away from humanity.

For millennia a brutish man could be very successful. This kind of man would offer a sense of security to a mate and could therefore pass on his genes. Because there was always a war, there was always an opportunity for a man of strength to become a hero. Those heroes might have been much more brave than they were intelligent, they were brutal, even psychopathic, but they were considered heroes nonetheless. The bully has been a pretty successful model of a human, at least in terms of Natural Selection. The gentle people paid the price, all over the world. Our genetic programming does not favor the gentle people and in many cases their DNA was lost to humanity. I fear that if human DNA was programmed by Gods, it was a junior God’s first project and he or she didn’t have a lot of experience and very little foresight.

Humans are this planet’s most powerful and utterly dominant predator. Now our survival will depend on turning bullies into gentle people. Can the competitor become a collaborator? We believe that we are better now, more civilized and less violent, but in truth we have only exchanged the physicality of swords and fists for the power of computers, the internet, and social media. The bullying is now done with a keyboard. Instead of practicing sword fighting or aiming a gun at a target, we aim zeros and ones at each other. The effect is worse. Nobody sees the wounds, there is no smell of blood. The victims live to suffer another day. The old bully wore a uniform and carried weapons, the new bully weaponizes words and monetizes data. The old-fashioned bully took his chance in a fight that he might, albeit rarely, loose. There was always that slim possibility that his victim might get the upper hand. Bullying by keyboard involves no such risk of bodily harm. Anyone can do it.

We CAN revolt against natural selection. The planet will heat up, millions of species will be erased. We need to change OURSELVES. We need to grow, despite our programming and against our programming! The great human hack of the 21st century… to become a new species, homo sapiens 2.0.


[1] Estimates, of course, vary greatly, but up to 100 million people lived in the Americas before the Europeans arrived… 90% of them were killed. While most died from the viruses the Europeans brought with them, many of them died in the most carelessly cruel way. And that’s just the Americas…

Now : Time

The following is a post from September 2009, slightly edited:

Time has changed, or should I say our perception of time and especially our use of time has evolved. A long time ago we used to say “I’ll see you in Spring,” then we might have said “I’ll see you at the beginning of the third moon,” which became “I’ll wait for you during the second week of the seventh month,” until we arrived here: “I’ll meet you at 6:15, and don’t be late – I’ll only wait 10 minutes.”

The grid has narrowed, from a year to a nanosecond, and the hatch-marks are so close now that we can barely distinguish them. if your watch slows just a little bit you miss your appointment – unless you are a doctor: they are ALWAYS late for your appointment.

Is time an eternal and infinite and mysterious NOW or is it this finely hatched grid we have superimposed?

Of course it is both. The present moment versus measured time is also poetry versus data, which is also beauty versus information, or being versus having…

The moment, that now is poetry. The grid we superimpose is data. And isn’t that we seem to do to everything? Aren’t we choking all beauty with our grids, our data? Music and books have lost their magical beauty and have been reduced to data files and streams. Is it a teeter-totter that swings back and forth? Now towards poetry, now towards data? After these decades of reduction, will decades of expansion follow?

And that thought brings me to this: what do we need to change, what can we change?

Perhaps we can sometimes choose walking and biking over driving, like choosing to vacation in an area we can discover on foot or bicycle, as opposed to doing ten cities in two weeks. Perhaps we can discover ways to counteract the tightening noose of time that we are ourselves superimposing on our world. If we can insert a little space into our time, little balloons of NOW, those spaces will act like airbags in cars that save us from a collision… they will create little bubbles within the tightening net of measured time.

Swearing : Mantra

About five years ago I posted some thoughts about swearing and mantras… Today I remembered the post and looked it up. Here it is again:

In the book “Holy Sh*t – A Brief History of Swearing” I read that most speech originates from the cerebral cortex, which also controls voluntary actions and rational thought, while swearwords are stored in the limbic system, which is responsible for emotion, the fight-or-flight response, and the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate and blood pressure. People who have lost the ability to speak, e.g. due to a stroke, often still have the ability to swear.

The book also states that test subjects were able to withstand pain, in the form of very cold water, longer, if they spoke swearwords rather than other words.

That got me thinking. Swearing is culture-specific and the words themselves frequently change according to society. Training starts very young in families with parents making clear which words are “bad” or forbidden. This training appears to write swearwords to a different section of brain.

Like swearwords mantras are culture-specific and can be learned at a young age. Many cultures use mantras, but India, Tibet and Japan come to mind. The Ninjas of Japan have a variety of mantras that are to help against cold, against pain, or to promote healing etc.

What I am wondering about is whether these mantras are also, like swearwords, “written” to a different part of the brain? It would follow that the embedding of the mantra into a section of brain is akin to writing software and invoking the mantra is akin to running the program.

In other words, for a person outside the mantra culture, e.g. a non-Ninja, it would be impossible to “run the program” because the software was not written into the brain – just as a foreign speaker who hears an American swearword will not grasp its meaning, nor would yelling the word be able to relieve any pain for him/her.

Have mantras been researched with this in mind? Can they be written to a different part of the brain? How long does it take to embed a mantra? Does a mantra in fact evoke a whole program?

Swearing + Mantras

In the book “Holy Sh*t – A Brief History of Swearing” I read that most speech originates from the cerebral cortex, which also controls voluntary actions and rational thought, while swearwords are stored in the limbic system, which is responsible for emotion, the fight-or-flight response, and the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate and blood pressure. People who have lost the ability to speak, e.g. due to a stroke, often still have the ability to swear.

The book also states that test subjects were able to withstand pain, in the form of very cold water, longer, if they spoke swearwords rather than other words.

That got me thinking. Swearing is culture-specific and the words themselves frequently change according to society. Training starts very young in families with parents making clear which words are “bad” or forbidden. This training appears to write swearwords to a different section of brain.

Like swearwords mantras are culture-specific and can be learned at a young age. Many cultures use mantras, but India, Tibet and Japan come to mind. The Ninjas of Japan have a variety of mantras that are to help against cold, against pain, or to promote healing etc.

What I am wondering about is whether these mantras are also, like swearwords, “written” to a different part of the brain? It would follow that the embedding of the mantra into a section of brain is akin to writing software and invoking the mantra is akin to running the program.

In other words, for a person outside the mantra culture, e.g. a non-Ninja, it would be impossible to “run the program” because the software was not written into the brain – just as a foreign speaker who hears an American swearword will not grasp its meaning, nor would yelling the word be able to relieve any pain for him/her.

Have mantras been researched with this in mind? Can they be written to a different part of the brain? How long does it take to embed a mantra? Does a mantra in fact evoke a whole program?