The road to mindfulness

Recently, a charming and creative Italian man came through Paris and took three lessons with me in close succession. He was intrigued by the vocal technique clips I’ve been posting all year long, and we spent our time together going through one of my simple vocal exercises. You can watch the exercise in question below.

If you don’t want to watch it, let me describe the exercise briefly. Holding a steady pitch, sing or chant these five syllables in sequence: “hi hey hew hoe who.” That’s all there is to it.

I’ll call my student “Giuseppe,” although his real name is “Martino.” Giuseppe was a good sport and played all the games I proposed during the lessons. We enjoyed each other’s company and we made a lot of progress together. At some point fairly late during the lessons, Giuseppe asked me a keen question: “What’s the purpose of this exercise?”

I confess that at first I was a little stumped, for two reasons: (1) to me, the purpose of the exercises was obvious; (2) and Giuseppe was learning so many things that I thought the purpose of the exercise was obvious to him, too. But nothing is as obvious as you assume it is, and every question has a right to be asked. Not to mention that Giuseppe was probably teasing me. All the same, I got thinking about his question, and here I am sharing what I gathered.

Any situation can be described from multiple perspectives, and my exercise is no exception. We can describe it technically: five syllables, each starting with the aitch consonant and then going on to a diphthong, except for the last syllable (which is a straight-up vowel). The first vowel sound of each syllable follows an alphabetical order: A E I O U.

Or we can describe it as if writing a poem about it.

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I met James briefly during a recent trip. You can guess where we were by sussing out the landmark reflected on his eyeglasses.

I met James briefly during a recent trip. You can guess where we were by sussing out the landmark reflected on his eyeglasses.

Most of the above applies to all exercises. Perhaps we can simplify it and state that our task in life is to achieve embodied mindfulness. The means we use to achieve it are relatively unimportant. Playing attention to your breath? It has worked beautifully for thousands of years. Tai chi in the park every morning? Yes! Walking around the neighborhood taking photos? Perfect. Starting conversations with strangers during your travels? Nothing better. Lengthening a little syllable and spinning out its diphthong? It makes me so happy I could cry.

To begin with, Giuseppe approached the exercise hesitantly, as if he wasn’t even sure he wanted to do it. Why? Ah, there may be many reasons. Perhaps he was shy about vocalizing in front of someone else. He told me that his mother tongue doesn’t have the aitch sound, and that he was uncomfortable making it. Giuseppe kept messing up the syllables’ order. Have you ever looked up a telephone number, and two seconds later when you start dialing it you have already forgotten it? You look at the number again, and . . . again, you forget it before you dial it. To absorb information is a tricky business. If you don't think so, try to reproduce the Chinese characters below. How many times would you have to look at the photo to get the characters right?

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Giuseppe would start the exercise, and within a microsecond he’d start twisting his neck and shoulder. Why? Ah, there are always many reasons for any one thing! Giuseppe didn’t control his vocal apparatus, and he compensated by trying to do, with his neck and shoulders, what his vocal folds and pharynx and tongue wouldn’t do. By the same token, once he started getting the hang of the exercise, his neck and shoulders became totally relaxed and organized . . . showing that vocal organization is total-body organization.

Giuseppe would run out of air in the middle of sustaining a word, and he would gasp for air and “editorialize” it; I mean, he made a grimace, a joke, or a comment about running out of air. It’s as if he was underlining the very fact of gasping: “Hey, everyone! Did you hear my horrible gasp? Hey!” Then he’d start the sequence again, and for some reason he’d keep his cool and not run out of air. And this without giving any thought to his breathing. His breath was a function of his overall approach: incoherent or coherent.

It’s wonderful to watch someone calm down, enter the moment, and think clearly about something. The transformation is total; the whole person becomes different, in posture, breath, voice, and vibration. Giuseppe would just stand there, looking poised and elegant; he’d do the exercise to perfection, spinning every sound with ease and care; he wouldn’t gasp or tighten his shoulders or editorialize; he’d “be.”

If you’re interested in it all, you can practice the exercise by yourself, following the clip on YouTube. Or come work with me in Paris . . . it’s a beautiful city, did you know that?

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

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The Lesson

For the past four years I’ve been taking piano lessons with Alexandre Mion, an old student and friend of mine. Alexandre is a first-class pianist as well as a wonderful human being: kind, patient, attentive, full of smiles, the perfect teacher. Alexandre works at a conservatoire in Clichy, a commune adjacent to Paris but administratively separate from it. The conservatoire is housed in a new building right next to the metro station “Mairie de Clichy.”

What do I learn in our lessons?

Not piano technique in and of itself; no. I learn to respond to music, and to embody my responses at the piano. Technique, in other words, is an embodied response to a musical stimulus.

If I respond freely, my embodiment is free. Getting there entails a deep psychological process. I have to become open-minded, open-hearted, open-brained, open-opened. And for me to be open-opened, I need to open to the moment, to life itself—to Life.

Riding the metro, I ready myself for my piano lessons by becoming attentive and appreciative. Corridors, tunnels, crossings, and line exchanges all take on symbolic power, as I pass through different layers of a multidimensional, otherworldly labyrinth.

Arriving at my destination, I exit the underground and go toward light. The first thing I see is a public-housing project. It’s a study in perspectives, proportions, lines and planes, the occupation of space. It’s a beehive for humans, strange and marvelous.

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Then I cross the street and enter the conservatoire. Perspectives, proportions . . . the meditation on space and light continues. I climb the stairs to the fourth floor. The steps, landings, and windows hypnotize me, and I’m now inside a ziggurat, timeless and mysterious.

I enter Alexandre’s room. Oftentimes, the first thing I do is to take a photo of the room’s window. The sun, the clouds, the raindrops are gorgeous; plus, weather hints at astronomy, and astronomy hints at cosmology, and cosmology is unfathomable. I like it that Alexander’s room hints at the unfathomable.

And there he is, my teacher, my witness, my guide, my friend, my brother. A single human being, representing the whole of humanity.

The sun shines and creates the strangest figures on the wall, on the piano itself, on the keyboard.

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I’m ready to sit down at the piano, to respond to music, and to embody my responses in gestures and movements, in fingerings, in phrasings.

Will I be free and open? I don't know. This is the lesson I've come to learn.

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©Pedro de Alcantara, 2017

The Receptive Heart

George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, liked quoting from his writings—“to spice up the conversation,” he would explain. I imagine he did it with a smirk and a wave of his hand, the better to annoy his listeners.

Here’s me, smirking and quoting myself from my book The Integrated String Player, which is being published in a couple of months by Oxford University Press. In the book, I’m making a point about acquisitive and receptive awareness.

You’re acquisitive when you have a goal, the desire to capture information precisely, the need to pay attention to something or someone, or the obligation to reuse, later on, the information you’re capturing. You’re acquisitive when you use analytical capabilities, labels, comparisons, and judgments. You’re acquisitive when you want to be better than someone else at the game. It’s a wonderful ability to have at your disposal: when you’re skillfully acquisitive, you get a lot of things done. It represents the adult in you, responsible and focused.

You’re receptive when you put aside goals, desires, needs, obligations, comparisons, and judgments. Having no objectives, you might not get anything done, although you’re likely to have all sorts of rich sensorial experiences. It’s another wonderful ability to have at your disposal. It represents the child in you, innocent, curious, and open to everything.

As it happens, I blogged about this sometime ago. You can read it here if you’re interested.

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Acquisitive and receptive awareness apply to all areas of human endeavor. You can listen to music acquisitively, when you want to analyze it, memorize it, and pass a music-theory test; or receptively, just to have come-what-may emotional responses. You can smell a flower (or a cup of coffee, or the nape of your beloved when she comes out of the shower) acquisitively by sniffing, or receptively by being close to the source of the fragrance and breathing normally. Believe me, coffee smells different when you sniff (which is “doing”) and when you breathe normally (which is “being”).

I had a busy summer. In Paris, I spent a lot of time correcting the proofs and creating the index for my forthcoming book. And I traveled far and wide: Oxford, Porto, Stockholm, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, São Paulo. My wife Alexis accompanied me to Porto and to Stockholm; elsewhere I traveled solo, to give lessons, workshops, and performances.

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While traveling, solo or with Alexis, I practiced the art of acquisitive and receptive tourism. Balancing the two frames of mind makes for a wonderful experience. In Porto, for instance, I had two professional engagements, for which I had precise places to go at precisely appointed times. The adult needed to show up, and he did show up reliably. Outside these engagements, Alexis and I were free to do as we pleased, and that’s what we did. Get up early, or get up late? Go to the river, or go to the town? Linger, or rush? Follow the map, or meander?

Every day we had an informal plan, which we executed informally. We developed a quick intimacy with the city, absorbing its moods and enjoying its sights, sounds, and smells. Do you want to go inside this church? Not particularly. Okay, we move on. Do you want to take this alleyway? Sure. Hey, look: cats, graffiti, a hidden coffee shop. Let’s go in.

The city’s soundscapes were unique: seagulls galore, singing their hearts out; buskers, some good, some . . . no, let’s not spoil our mood by listening acquisitively to a poor soul eking out a living. He’s what he is, doing what he’s doing. Listen to him acquisitively, and his voice enters your ears and brain and stays there, poking you and spoiling your vacation. Listen to him receptively, and the sounds come and go; his busking becomes authentic because you aren’t filtering it with predetermined aesthetic values.

What should you see when you go to Porto? “Should” is an acquisitive word. Go to Porto and be there; explore and enjoy. Or sleep all day. The receptive heart welcomes whichever experience comes its way. Churches, train stations, hills, alleyways, the river and the beach, museums, restaurants, buskers, seagulls. Your receptive journey will be remarkable; “your” Porto won’t be like anyone else’s.

I won't bore you with every detail of my receptive summer. But if you're curious to see and hear how "my" Stockholm differed from "my" Porto, here's a little video clip.

©2017, Pedro de Alcantara

Space

Big concepts are hard to define: love, beauty, destiny, space, time. All the same, we spend our days living these concepts, thinking about them, having feelings about them, making choices related to them, fighting them, embracing them.

Take the notion of space, for instance. Everything you do is directly or indirectly related to space. Home, city, car, bus, elevator: you pass from space to space, and the passage is always meaningful in some way. If you don't think so, go spend three hours inside an elevator. Or move house overnight. No, no, no--space isn't to be trifled with!

What you call your "body," which technically is your "person," exists in space, occupies space, moves in space. Take a breath, and you move in space. Nod in agreement with something your lover says, and you move in space. Say "hello," and you move in space.

And what you call your "mind," which coincidentally is also called your "person," is a reaction to space and a creator of space. If in your mind you're a small person, so you become in space. And if in your mind you're always growing and changing, your space too will be flexible, lively, adaptable.

Who, when, where, how are you? These are all spatial questions. Inside and outside, the space is you, and you're the space.

©2017, Pedro de Alcantara

The Technicians

What is technique?

I suggest that technique is the shape you give to a thought, which is the shape you give to an emotion, which is the shape you give to an indescribable insight you gathered in a place far away.

Go to the place far away; experience its terrors and delights; then come back to the material world to share with us what you learned. Your technique will unfold organically.

Watch and enjoy!

What is it all about?

This blog post isn’t about the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, but let’s stay with him for a little while.

If you decide to read Stevenson’s biography on Wikipedia, you’ll marvel at what an interesting, bizarre, and marvelous life Stevenson had. Among his great achievements, Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a novella about a man with a split personality, Dr Jekyll the kind physician and Mr Hyde the psychotic murderer, health and disease inhabiting the same person. The novella is also known as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or simply Jekyll & Hyde. Movies, plays, adaptations, translations, and suchlike have kept Jekyll & Hyde alive and well since its publication in 1886.

Jekyll & Hyde speaks to us because it speaks about us. Inside all of us there’s a pull between two personality complexes, one aggressive and the other loving, one tidy and the other incoherent, one hopeful and the other desperate, one celebrating life and the other pointing toward death. You’re calm and intelligent as you pursue some little task at your desk, when you accidentally drop some coffee on your computer. And, ka-boom! You’re crazed with anger and resentment, and ready to murder someone.

This blog post isn’t about the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Born in Romania in 1876, Brancusi spent most of his working life in France, where he died in 1957. His long and creative life is hard to encapsulate in a few words, but we’ll say he was a pioneer of abstract sculpture. Instead of depicting generals riding their war horses, he depicted . . . whoa! Brancusi just arose from the grave and got mad at me.

There are idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call "abstract" is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things.

If you’d like to spend an hour in Brancusi’s company, watch this YouTube video.

But if you only have a second, here’s one of his beautiful works.

Brancusi once said this:

Things are not difficult to make; what is difficult is putting ourselves in the state of mind to make them.

When Stevenson heard this, he smiled and agreed. This is what he said:

Things aren’t difficult to make; what is difficult is to keep your inner Hyde at bay and let your inner Jekyll help you take care of business.

The business might be learning a skill, filing your taxes, passing an exam, making dinner, or crossing the street. Hyde runs into traffic, or doesn’t see the bicycle coming at him, or trips an old lady, or rushes into a pothole and twists his ankle, and gets really pissed off about it. Jekyll crosses the street, and that’s that. It’s a whole other approach.

Let's watch the transformation in reverse: Hyde becoming Jekyll. It takes a tremendous effort of the conscious will.

Make a distinction between “the thing” and “the thing before the thing,” or between the task and the frame of mind, or between results and processes. For instance, you don’t learn a foreign language; instead, you “learn how to learn a foreign language.” It’s relatively difficult to learn how to learn a foreign language, but once you’ve done that, learning a foreign language or three is easy!

What triggers your inner Hyde? Judgment, expectations, assumptions, suppositions, guilt and shame, “should” and “should not,” voices that you hear in your head.

What allows you to access your inner Jekyll? The absence of “should” and “should not,” be they whispered or shouted.

And this blog post isn’t about Georges Braque, the great painter who—among other accomplishments—developed Cubism with Pablo Picasso. Braque heard us talk about Stevenson and Brancusi, and he got excited.

I have made a great discovery. I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one reaches this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence. . . .  Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.

What on earth does this mean? Empty your mind; silence the voices; then you’ll be in a state where you can make things, do things, learn things, enjoy things, love things. Ah, and people, too; you’ll love people.

(This blog post is about love. End of story!)

 

 

The double-helix staircase

Look at this wonderful photo of a wonderful object. It’s the DNA Tower in Kings Park, Western Australia, celebrating life in the form of the double-spiral arrangement of our DNA structure. Some people would prefer to call this a “double-helix” staircase, considering that a spiral is two-dimensional and a helix, three-dimensional. But we won’t get bogged down in words. Instead, we’ll admire the object’s structure and construction, and we’ll respond to its symbolic power.

Two fellows stand atop the tower. To get there, they each took one of the helical paths that intertwine to make the double-helix staircase. Racing upward, they crossed paths at every landing, laughing and cursing, one trying to trip up the other. But they reached the summit safely, and now they are “in seventh heaven.” That’s the story I like telling, anyway.

Opposing energies live inside us. We can call them intuition and intellect, masculine and feminine principles, private and public behaviors, yin and yang . . . the list is long. Integration depends on these opposites getting along and complementing one another. The double-helix staircase stands as a symbol of the travel that each of us must undertake to achieve integration.

Intuition is free-ranging, uncontrolled, unhinged. The word “intellect” comes from “intelligence,” which comes from a root meaning “to choose.” Intuition creates, intellect edits; intuition expands your mind, intellect organizes your insights. Intuition rises up along one of the helices, while intellect rises up on the opposite one. They meet at the landing, and there “they make love.” Then, they resume their path upward, seemingly as separate entities but ever connected each to the other, thanks to the double helix.

Your private self is known to no one, but you. It’s made of dreams, memories, aspirations, hopes, pains, images, and a thousand facets that you polish by yourself—alone in the house, sometimes asleep, sometimes at the computer, sometimes in the company of other people and yet reserved and hidden. Your public self is seen, heard, touched, and smelled by the world at large. It’s the embodiment of communication, the root of which comes from “to share.” You stew private thoughts and insights for a while, then you make them public: you share them. Your private self rises up along one of the helices, while your private self rises up along the opposite one. But at the landing, they meet and interact; they help each other, they inform each other. Your private experiences feed your public ones, and vice-versa. It’s essential for everyone to know how to be alone, and to know how to be with others; to know “how to keep” and to know “how to share.”

I’m lying in bed in the afternoon, having idle thoughts, feeling sleepy . . . After a while I get up, shower and shave, put a clean shirt on, and go out to give a performance. Then I go back home, lie in bed, and digest the performance, whether I’m asleep or awake all night long. My private self is inevitably shaken, stirred, and stimulated by the public exposure. And my next public event will be inevitably informed by the shaken and stirred private self.

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At a studio space that I rent, I talk to myself, sing a few notes, test an idea regarding the voice or the breath or the vowels or . . . something. I weave a narrative about my vocal idea, then I stand in front of a camera and “talk and sing to the camera,” which is very different from talking and singing to myself. Later on, I edit whatever I recorded into a five-minute clip, and I’ll put it on the Internet, where total strangers will watch me and listen to me and respond to me in unfathomable ways. And I go back to the studio space and resume talking to myself, or pacing the room in silence, or just sitting in the semi-dark, by myself, alone, privately.

Or I practice the cello for hours or days on end, then I share a technique or insight with a student, then I write a few paragraphs about the insight. After many intermediate steps, I publish a book about it all. (“To publish” is “to make public.”) My book THE INTEGRATED STRING PLAYER will come out later in 2017, exposing my innermost feelings about the cello to the scrutiny of friends, colleagues, strangers, critics, and humanity at large. And the fact of going public with these innermost feelings will inform and guide my private experiences for years to come.

  • Intuition, intellect, intuition, intellect, forever climbing up and meeting at the landing.
  • Private, public, private, public, forever climbing up that double-helix staircase.
  • Solo, in a team, solo, in a team, forever climbing up and reinforcing each other.
  • Masculine, feminine, masculine, feminine, forever.
  • Yin, yang . . .

The idea, then, is to nourish each opposite and get them to collaborate. Put your shoes on -- and take your shoes off! -- and go climb up those stairs.

©2017, Pedro de Alcantara