The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 6: Samer Totah and Kenneth Snelson, Masters of Balance

Recently I’ve been writing about what I call the Oppositional Principle for musicians—the idea that you may be able to play, sing, or conduct better if you keep your body relatively still, moving little beyond the needed gestures of your technique. The still body can condense and distribute energy more powerfully than the moving body.

It all depends on how you do it, of course!

Your stillness ought to be the result of many tensions brought to balance, like a Kenneth Snelson sculpture in which multiple forces in multiple dimensions all contribute to the overall stability of the structure. If you organize your forces in this way, then music will “charge you up.” The fluid energies of music will oppose your stable forces, and music itself will come through condensed and powerful.

After you visit Snelson’s beautiful website, come back here and watch Samer Totah, a great oud player who focuses his movements where they can carry the greatest power.



The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 5: Ivry Gitlis, Devilish Violinist

 What I’ve been calling the oppositional principle in music is a way of singing, playing, or conducting in which the musician moves relatively little beyond the composition’s (or improvisation’s) immediate technical needs. Like all concepts, this can be easily misunderstood. I don’t think it’s good for you to be inert, passive, rigid, stiff, boring, afraid, or self-conscious! Instead I advocate a steady presence, like a bouncer at a nightclub who stands so confidently by the door that no one even tries to sneak past him. Call it “latent power” if you will. You can achieve it by distributing your physical tensions throughout the whole body from head to toe; firming up your spine, all the way from the skull to the coccyx; and pointing some of your energies toward the floor (as if anchoring yourself) and some toward the ceiling (as if unmooring  your inner Zeppelin). In other words, you “think up and down” at the same time.

You can give extraordinary, extravagant, intense, intoxicating performances in this way: the body doesn’t move, but the music soars! Watch the violinist Ivry Gitlis playing  Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” without losing his anchored feet and legs, without throwing his head about, and without huffing and puffing. It’s the music that goes crazy, as well it should!

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 4: Young & Old

What I've been calling the oppositional principle in music is a way of singing, playing, or conducting in which the perforer moves relatively little, instead letting the music move through him or her and on to the public. In recent posts we saw Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, and an entire choir of male singers perform while keeping themselves quite still on stage. Today I'd like you to watch two different pianists demonstrating the approach: a very young Ahmad Jahmal and a not-so-young Mieczyslaw Horszowski (who was still playing the piano after his hundredth birthday). Jamal and Horszowski move their bodies only a bit here and there. They produce magically sweet sounds at the piano. And every one of the notes they play has a clarity of intention that make the notes "speak" as if coming directly out of the piano.

These two great artists show that the oppositional principle knows no boundaries: you can embody it if you're white or black, young or old, a cool cat or maestro. What's also interesting is that by embracing an universal principle you'll remain a unique individual; Jahmal and Horszowski are completely different from each other, even though they're very similar! I'll go on a limb here and state that only by embracing universal and timeless principles can you really fulfill your individual mission on this planet.

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 3: Dizzy and the Bird

The assumption that to make music you must move your body a lot is widely shared, by audiences and musicians alike. Some people think that the only way for a musician to express himself or herself fully is by “moving with the music," and it’s true that there are many great instrumentalists, singers, and conductors who take a balletic, athletic approach to music. But there have always been master musicians who, instead of moving with the music, let music “move through them” and on to the audience. In fact, by remaining relatively still musicians actually condense and heighten the power of music to move the audience.

What I call the oppositional principle in music—where the musician opposes the movement of music through the stillness of his or her body—applies to all fields of music-making. You might suppose that jazz musicians usually move an awful lot when they play. After all, those guys improvise crazy stuff and lead wild personal lives, right? Counterintuitive as it may seem, the jazz greats move almost not at all when they perform. Check this clip with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—two of the greatest players ever—and watch how little they move. An interesting detail is that when Dizzy lifts and drops his trumpet, he does it at a very slow tempo, much slower than the tempo of the music.

Moral of the story: If you stand still, the craziness just gets deeper, broader—and better.

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 2: Coro de Iddanoa Monteleone

Bodily coordination comes in many forms, one of which I believe is particularly rewarding for musicians. It consists in suffusing your body with latent mobility—that is, the capacity to move in a thousand different ways, held permanently in reserve—but without actually moving much beyond the minimal movements you need in instrumental and vocal technique.

Depending on how you do it, holding your body still may have the effect of condensing and multiplying the energies of music itself. Your rhythmic drive and the richness of your sounds will actually be bigger if you don’t move a lot.

Imagine a canister full of gas. If you heat the canister, the gas inside will expand and push against the canister’s inner walls with ever-increasing power. Canned and heated gas, in other words, has more power than gas that isn’t canned or heated. Let’s call this compressed energy. The compressed energy of the expanding gas can be put to a constructive use, for instance to propel a rocket.

A few weeks ago I offered Louis Armstrong as an example of condensed energy when he plays the trumpet, though not when he sings. Here I offer you the Sardinian folk group Coro de Iddanoa Monteleone. The conductor moves a bit, the singers move almost not at all… and music itself moves with unstoppable power!

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 1: Louis Armstrong

Ben Ratliff, a journalist with the New York Times, recently blogged about this video clip of a young Louis Amsrong, performing in Denmark in 1933. Ratliff invites his readers to watch how Armstrong moved to the music, "making his body part of the performance." What's remarkable about the performance, however, is Amstrong's dual personality. As a communicator and an entertainer, he moves, dances, makes faces, and clowns around in a very amusing manner. But when he starts playing the trumpet, he completely stops all extraneous movements! He stands upright and still, and other than those movements that are necessary to play the trumpet (lips, fingers, lungs, and so on), he moves minimally and almost invisibly. He doesn't move to the music; rather, the music itself moves, from him (or maybe even through him) to the audience. Ratliff also remarks on how the other musicians in the band tap their feet to the beat of the music. While it's true that some of them tap almost frenetically, their upper bodies are, like Amstrong's, at rest: vertical, still, and ready for movement but by no means moving.

I believe this is a vital oppositional principle: Make yourself firm and grounded as music passes through you, and the opposition between your firmness and the music's mobility will create a great deal of dynamic energy, much to your listeners' benefit. Move to the music as you play or sing, however, and you risk dispersing the power of music to the winds. And you know what? It's not only your listeners who'll suffer!

Many master musicians remain still when they play and sing. Watch this space for further examples and a thorough discussion of this most important of principles.

My kingdom for a couple more hours!

Time is a flexible entity. If you’re bored, time drags. If you’re excited, time flies. Sixty seconds can seem like an eternity—for instance, if you inadvertently lock yourself out of your house. Naked. In winter.

There’s never a moment in your life when your moods and your needs and wants stop affecting your sense of time. Time is always, always, always flexible! In other words, you can always stretch time, steal time, and otherwise make and take the time to accomplish anything you really want to accomplish.

I’m saying this as a sort of confession. For the past few weeks I’ve been busy with deadlines, projects, travel plans, paperwork, and every last professional excuse ever invented. I’m in New York as I write, battling a big book deadline on a project I started roughly ten years ago. “I’ve been too busy to blog,” I telepathically told my subscribers. And you know what? I was lying! To myself first and foremost! How many things have I chosen to do recently that were less important and less fun then blogging? Dozens, hundreds, thousands of time-consuming things, many of which I wouldn’t even describe to you for fear of ridicule.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a complete slacker. I’ve done a lot of good things lately. I even found the time to read a couple of books, including a Sherlock Holmes novel I had never read before. It contains a quote attributed to William Gladstone, who was England’s prime minister for many years: “A change of work is the best rest.”

Moral of the story?

Writing this blog post has allowed me to procrastinate facing my big deadline. I feel so rested, I think I’ll pull an all-nighter on that ten-year project.

 

 

If you can't do something... teach it!

A nifty website for guitarists features a regular blog called “Guitar Hero,” profiling up-and-coming guitarists with interesting life stories. Guess who’s their most recent Guitar Hero?

Modesty prevents me from uttering his name.

I took a grand total of two guitar lessons 38 years ago. Occasionally I pluck a guitar string when someone leaves an instrument unattended, but I play the guitar roughly as well as I speak Greek: “Hey, George, where's my spanakopita?”

left-brain-right-brain.jpg

However different any two human endeavors may be, they’ll always share certain characteristics. You need to be pretty attentive to perform brain surgery, but as it happens you also need to be attentive to perform pedicure. Amputated toes, anyone? Exactly. The best brain surgeons are focused, clear-headed, methodical, knowledgeable, and intuitive. And the best pedicurists? They’re pretty much the same, even if the actual techniques used are a bit different.

Within the music world, a guitarist, a singer, a conductor, and a pianist have many more traits in common than they have in separate. Coordination, rhythm, and sound are the three pillars of music-making, and all musicians need to steep themselves in the basic principles of all three.

A good teacher is one that helps you become like the best brain surgeons and pedicures: focused, clear-headed, methodical, and all that. If you’re learning the piano, you certainly need to acquire specific piano-playing techniques. But you could learn many important skills from someone other than a pianist: a fellow musician, or another artist, or just someone who’s really observant and skilful.

I know flutists who have traveled long distances to Staten Island just to take lessons with a certain trumpeter there. Singers get coached by pianists and conductors. Conductors sometimes profess admiration for certain dancers, from whom they learned valuable lessons. Dancers learn from sculptors; witness Martha Graham’s collaboration with Isami Noguchi.

As it happens, the most important forces in my life as a cellist have been a pianist and a singer. I did have some excellent cello teachers, but my real musical identity was shaped by my encounters with Robert D. Levin and the late Cornelius L. Reid.

I’ve taken the idea of applying universal principles to individual endeavors and, over the years, I've developed a pedagogical method that is pertinent to all musicians without exceptions: cellists, pianists, and singers, but also percussionists, trombonists, drum majorettes—you name it.

For these reasons and many more, it makes sense that a guy who can’t play the guitar to save his life would become a Guitar Hero. Go check it out and then let me know what you think.

You can reach me at the pedicurist's, where I’ll be receiving some much-needed brain surgery.

Write a story every day, part 12: Words of Wisdom

I’ve been writing a short story every day for two years, one month, and three days now. I thought now it'd be a good time to wrap up this blog series with a few shouts into the wind.

You feel totally sure that you couldn’t ever do something such as writing a story every single day, but… have you even tried to do it? Have you tried once for three minutes and failed and given up forever? Have you tried it a second time after you first failed? Right. Call me again AFTER YOU’VE TRIED IT TO BEGIN WITH!

You can develop the most unlikely habits. People are adaptable—different people in different ways. It’s amazing that people “learn” how to smoke cigarettes. You might as well learn how to swallow burning sandpaper. Learning how to write a story every day is easier than a lot of things you’ve learned willingly in your life.

First create, then edit. Before your wicked, amoral, shameless, free, wide-ranging creativity creates something—any one little thing—your inner editor has absolutely no role to play. It’s a universal principle: First the shapeless blob of mud, then the sculpture. First the dead chicken, then the fricassée de poulet à l’estragon. If you’re going to write a short story every day, you need to let those dead chickens come out of the freezer.

You don’t necessarily get better at something by simply repeating it again and again. I know musicians who’ve played in the same orchestra for 30 years and who have completely lost their ability to make music in any meaningful way. (Orchestras have a way of killing people slowly.) But if you practice something attentively and skillfully for any length of time, you definitely improve your craft. Writing a story every day for two years can kinda make you a good writer, know what I mean?

Time to take a break from writing about writing. My next blog series will be purely visual. See it for yourselves!

Write a story every day, part 11: The Set-Up

To help you write a short story every day, decide on a physical set-up and use it to your advantage. I keep a dedicated notebook for my short stories, and I write all of them by hand, in sequence. From the onset I gave myself a rule: to finish my short stories at the bottom of a page. I might write one, two, three, or four pages—the number of pages isn’t important—but the story can’t finish in the middle of a page. Any one page I start writing on, I must finish. I’m on my sixth notebook right now. Each notebook has had different dimensions, so my short stories have varied in length from about 300 to about 900 words.

To some degree, to restrain your creativity can actually make you more creative. It was T.S. Eliot who said that writing free verse (that is, without a metric structure and without rhyme) is like playing tennis with the net down. It’s not much of a game; in fact, it’s pointless and boring. Put up the net, follow the rules of the game—then you have a challenge, obstacles to overcome, the potential for success and failure, the flow of adrenaline… My modest finish-the-page rule makes for a slightly harder game, more challenging. And my creativity responds! “I’m up to it. Restrain me, and I’ll expand against your restrictions.”

Could you write your daily short story at the computer? Sure. Could you vary the length at will? Sure. Could you skip a day? Sure. The only thing is, there are risks and dangers in every situation without exception. Your creativity might interpret “the right to skip a day” to mean “the right to skip, period!” One day becomes three becomes ten becomes eternity. But, hey! You’re boss! To live is to make choices and to own the consequences of the choices you make. Choose to write every day, or choose to write only when you feel like it; and live with the consequences. There are very successful writers who don’t write every day, and writers who write nonstop without achieving a thing. The task really isn’t to write every day, but to find your creative flow and fulfill your potential in whatever way best suits you… and this may or may not be writing every day.

Lesson #4: Do as you will. There are no recipes.

In my next post, I’ll bring this series to a close with a list of some of the secondary benefits of writing a short story every day.

Write a story every day, part 10: Exercises in Style

I’ve been writing a short story every day for two years. For a while I ran out of creative juice and began resenting the daily short-story obligation. My wife suggested that I do exercises in style, much like those made famous in Raymond Queneau’s marvelous little book, Exercises in Style.

Queneau describes a banal incident in Paris: A guy witnesses a petty conflict between two people aboard a bus; the day after, he happens to see one of those people in front of a train station. Then Queneau tells the same story in 99 different ways: in film-noir style, in pig Latin, monosyllabic, and so on. In an overt homage to Queneau, Matt Madden did the same thing in the graphic-novel/comic-book format, in 99 Ways to Tell a Story.

I wrote up an incident that had happened to me in New York City last summer. While I was walking along Broadway on the Upper West Side, I bumped into a woman of my acquaintance. The day after, while leaving the Metropolitan Museum on 5th Avenue, I bumped into someone else I knew, this time a man. In my short story I described these two acquaintances, what we said to each other, how I felt about these meetings. I added visual details and invented some psychological quirks (“lies”) for myself and for my acquaintances, just to spice up the exercises in style. Then I re-wrote the story 45 times (“a short story every day, for forty-five days running”). I wrote it in the voices of Rene Descartes, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Anne Rice, Quentin Tarantino, and many others. I wrote it from the point of view of a paranoid psychotic, a military man, a law-and-order fanatic. I wrote it as a study in smells, then as a study in numbers. I wrote it as science fiction, like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I wrote it in the style of the King James Bible. I wrote it in baby talk. I wrote a version in phony German, a language in which my actual vocabulary is about five hundred words; in phony Spanglish; in not-so-phony Portuguese (which is my mother tongue).

Truth be told, the possibilities of the exercises in style are limitless. You could do thousands of them. The plus is that you have a lot fun and develop your craft. The minus is that the exercise might turn out to be emotionally sterile—there’s little depth to it, little universality; in the end, it amounts to a narcissistic head trip for the writer. But suppose you just don’t know how else to start, sustain, or renew your story-a-day habit: resort to the endlessly amusing exercises in style.

Lesson #3: When art fails you, work on your craft. There are plenty of low-cost, low-risk, low-brain writing exercises to keep you going over dry patches.

In my next post I’ll tell you about the nuts and bolts of writing a story every day.

Write a story every day, part 9: The Benefits

When it comes to the task of writing a short story every day, you can simply become the benevolent tyrant of your own life and make up your own definition of a short story. “A short story is whatever I say it is!” Then you can write pretty much anything you want. Short stories with a beginning, a middle, and end; vignettes, anecdotes, sketches; jokes, good and bad; rants; scenes from an imaginary movie; self-contained scenes from a novel you are working on.

Anything!

This is partly how I’ve succeeded in writing a short story every day for two years—by giving myself some leeway. Do the math: two years, one of 365 days, the other 366: 731 days, 731 short stories. Suppose only ten percent of my stories have a beginning, middle, and end, a textbook protagonist, and a textbook epiphany. That’s 73 bona-fide short stories. Suppose only ten percent of my bona-fide short stories are any good. That’s seven good stories. It’s the start of a publishable book.

Besides writing a number of bona-fide short stories I wrote sequences of interlinked stories, scenes, or fragments. My wife and I like asking idle questions. “How many times do you think we’ve kissed since we started dating?” “I don’t know. There must be some sort of Divine Computer that keeps track of everything. Don’t you wish you could access it?” I started writing a few improvisations on the Divine Computer, and wrote a sequence of fifteen self-contained pages (“a short story every day, for fifteen days running”). In time these improvisations coalesced into a book project, a novel about a 17-year-old boy who knows how to access the Divine Computer. My fiction editor liked the idea and gave me a contract for the novel.

I wrote a thirty-scene sequence (“a short story every day, for thirty days running”) about a kid who explores a haunted house before being swallowed by it. I don’t want to give away too many details, but the boy’s mother is illiterate; the town’s sheriff may or may not be the—no, I can’t tell you more. I have the makings of a good ghost story here, and I one day I might develop it into a novel or movie.

I wrote a fourteen-scene sequence (“a short story every day, for fourteen days running”) of set pieces for a Hong-Kong-style action movie. Except that the movie has no dialogue—everything is in the visuals and sound effects. Every night I recounted the day’s scene to my wife, complete with sound effects (which for the most part were revolting, since some bad stuff happens to some good people in Hong-Kong action movies). At the end of the scene she’d ask, “And then, what happened?” And I’d answer, “I’ll tell you tomorrow.” Two weeks! Day after day, a short story every day!

Lesson #2: Discipline pays off. You start off with a fixed, narrow goal (“a story every day”), and before long you start reaping a broad array of unexpected benefits (“a fancy book contract for a novel”).

In my next post I’ll tell you how I navigated a stretch of a few weeks in which I felt like I couldn’t write new stories every day anymore.

Write a story every day, part 8: What IS a story?

On January 1st, 2007, I decided to write a short story every day. So far I’ve managed a perfect record over two years and six days! Quite apart from writing more than 700 short stories, I learned a whole bunch of things in the process. I thought this would be a good time to go over the ground I covered.

What is a short story? There’s no consensus among writers. Some say a story of any length MUST have a beginning, middle, and end. No beginning, middle, and end: no story. I’ve always been bothered by these three terms. They don’t tell you much about what stories really are like, how they “behave” in practice. I think good stories of any sort—short stories, novels, plays, movies—have a premise, the build-up of tension and conflict, and a denouement or resolution of some sort. You might call the premise the “beginning,” the build-up the “middle,” and the resolution the “end.” But without these meaty characteristics, a beginning, a middle, and end are incomplete and misleading concepts.

Some writers claim that a short story MUST have a protagonist, main character, or “hero,” and the protagonist MUST undergo some inner change as the story unfolds. The character starts the story in some state of mind and comes out of it having had an insight about himself or the world around him or the meaning of life in general. James Joyce called this insight an “epiphany.” The term originally referred to how the baby Jesus’ divine nature was made manifest to the Gentiles, via the Magi. In this sense, an epiphany is the manifestation of a divine being; an epiphany is a revelation.

The term as used by James Joyce has now entered the common discourse.

“Honey, I had an epiphany while at the supermarket today.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“I don’t like cleaning your cat’s damn litter box. Never did. From now on it’s your job.”

“Epiphany, shemiphany. I gave you the damn cat for your damn birthday, remember?”

When I decided to write a short story everyday, I also decided to free myself from any preconceived ideas about what a story is or should be. Anything I write, I call a short story if I feel like it! Yes, it’s a form of cheating. But it allowed me to write very freely every single day—so freely and so prolifically that I even ended up writing dozens of stories with a beginning, middle, and end, with a protagonist that undergoes some sort of epiphany or revelation.

Lesson #1: You’re the boss of your own life. Make your choices and live with the consequences of the choices you make. I stand by my supremely permissive definition of “short story,” and I accept that, as a consequence of my own permissiveness, the authorities might refuse to call my daily efforts “short stories.”

In my next post I’ll tell you what kinds of stories I wrote over these past two years.

The Mask, Part 4: Wear Your Characters' Skins

In my recent posts I stated my belief that we all have multiple personalities inside us, and each personality has its own set of skills and talents. By wearing a Mask we can tap into our inner stockbroker, our inner rock star, our inner healer. And then we can USE their skills.

The principle applies universally, but for creative people, and more narrowly writers, it’s a boon to be able to tap into these different voices and people. If you’re a writer you can BECOME each different character in your novels, short stories, and scripts; and the character that you become then write the stories for you, by reacting, thinking, talking, and feeling each in his or her individual ways.

You need to draft a short story, screenplay scene, or novel chapter, and you can’t overcome the tyranny of the blank page? Put on the Mask of one of the characters involved in the action. This may be a T-shirt, a bonnet, an unlit cigarette dangling from your lips, a pair of oversized sunglasses. Or a posture: slouched, stiff, defensive, preening, slutty. Or a speech pattern or language tic: a few threatening words spoken slowly through clenched teeth, a fake-Serbian accent, or, like, a burst of Valley-Girl Speak.

By wearing their Masks you become Hannibal Lecter, Hamlet, Harry Potter, or Hermione. The characters have their own paradigm, their own agendas; they’ll act and react within the scene or chapter, doing and saying whatever is logical and organic to them. Then you won’t write the scene as much as you’ll take dictation from your characters.

After you finish writing, wear the Mask of the Literary Agent and sell your masterpiece for a million bucks. Just don’t forget to mention me when you give your Nobel Prize speech, all right?

The Mask, Part 3: Put on those glasses!

In my recent posts I stated that you have multiple personalities inside you, and all it takes is a Mask for you to tap into each personality. It may be better for you to rein in most of these personalities most of the time, but having them dormant inside you is better than not having them altogether. The multiple personalities really mean multiple energies and skills, and you have at least two good ways to put them to good use: You can sublimate (that is, gather, condense, and transform) these energies into a unified whole that is your individuality; or you can actually let them loose as needed.

We’ll leave sublimation out of the discussion and let loose instead.

A petty bureaucrat is refusing to stamp a form? Tap into your slick-lawyer persona. A peculiar smirk and a few words, well chosen and delivered with just the right mixture of charm and threat, will get the bureaucrat to stamp the form almost despite himself.

You need to learn the basics of a foreign language before being posted abroad? Trigger your inner chameleon. Wear a metaphorical kimono to learn Japanese, or metaphorical lederhosen to learn German. Go to the language classes as if in the skin of a German. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak a word of German to begin with. You’ll learn faster if you wear a German Mask.

You need to walk past a group of pumped-up street toughs? Inside yourself there’s a powerful martial artist. You don’t need to physically fight the toughs; just give them a little hint of that energy of yours, and they’ll let you through. At a glance they know the difference between an easy mark and someone they’d rather not mess with. A truly skilful martial artist actually never gets into fights: he or she moves with a steady posture that isn’t necessarily bellicose, and potential adversaries give up the fight before it starts.

Remember, the Mask may be a bodily tic, a single word, a tone of voice, a piece of clothing… or just the THOUGHT of that word or hat or tic or what you will. Ultimately you don’t even need to put on that infamous shirt to become a pimp or fanatic; any one trigger will do, including a single thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before I conclude this series, I’d like to tell my writer friends how they can use the Mask in their work.

 

The Mask, Part 2: Do NOT put on that shirt!

In my recent post I stated that Multiple Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of every human being, and I promised to tell you how to trigger each of your inner personalities.

Have you ever had the creeps just touching a shirt in a clothing store, or simply looking at it in a window? The creeps is a strong negative reaction you can’t quite fully understand or articulate. You might say the shirt is very ugly, but that doesn’t explain the strength of your reaction. What harm is there in an inert shirt, hanging at a safe distance? In the shirt itself, none. In the energies that the shirt evokes in your psyche, however, there’s tremendous POTENTIAL harm. That shirt is a Mask, and you’re afraid of it, afraid of the behaviors it’d trigger if you wore it. Deep down you know that, were you to put that shirt on, you’d become a pimp, a murderer, a pedophile, a religious fanatic, a retard. You know you have these personalities inside you, and most of the time you really don’t want them to come out at all.

The Mask, symbolized by that shirt, is an extremely powerful trigger.

The Mask is many things. It can be a literal mask, like those used in sacred ceremonies in aboriginal cultures, or those we wear at costume parties and at Carnival time. Face paint is a version of this mask; and make-up is a version of face paint. Ergo, when you put make-up on you’re engaging in the same ritual as the aboriginal in the Amazon jungle who covers his face in red pigment: You’re summoning a different part of yourself to come to the fore.

The Mask can be a piece of clothing as simple as a tie, or as elaborate as a theatrical getup that takes an hour to assemble before each performance. Go through your wardrobe and imagine how you really feel when you wear jeans and a T-shirt, as opposed to a slinky black dress, as opposed to a pantsuit, as opposed to a cashmere sweater, as opposed to a halter top. Or take two T-shirts, one red, one black. Aren’t you two different people when you wear one or the other? Perhaps very slightly different in this case, but different nevertheless.

The Mask can be a gesture, a little tic of body language: shrug your shoulders, and suddenly you’re a Jewish mother harping about her wayward son. Thrust your chest outward, and suddenly you’re a preening bodybuilder. Let your head hang down and sideways, and suddenly you’re a sad-sack loser with a victim mentality. The gesture invites a certain voice, an attitude, a way of behaving. All you need is ONE LITTLE TRIGGER, and an entire personality emerges.

The Mask can be something you do with your voice: a few words spoken high up in your voice, a growl, a four-letter word shouted with a nasal twang. And off you go, a new person altogether: a Brooklyn hoodlum, a priest with a secret past, a madam in a bordello in Berlin, circa 1923. A single word said with the right accent or tone of voice: that’s all it takes!

Charlie Chaplin was pottering around the movie set when he put on a small bowler hat and oversized shoes, picked up a cane… and, bingo! The Tramp was born whole, the gait, the personality, all gestures, attitudes, and reactions flowing naturally from the peculiar outfit that Chaplin had put on.

Javier Bardem played an evil psychopath in “No Country for Old Men,” the film made by the Coen brothers based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. I read an interview with him in which he said the set hairdresser gave him a haircut… whereupon he became the psychopath he was meant to play. Bangs, that’s all it took! He couldn’t have played Prince Charming with those bangs. Or an action hero. Or a university professor. (Actually, I know a professor or three who have bangs, but this only proves the point.)

Look at a group photo of college students from about 1975. Those long fuzzy beards, those thick glasses with heavy frames, those broad-collared polyester shirts? They were “personalities,” not simple accoutrements. The personalities were triggered, intimately, directly, inevitably, by the accoutrements. Take one of those guys from that photo. Give him a shave, get him to wear contact lenses and a black linen shirt: He won’t be the same guy. He won’t talk the same way, pursue the same interests, or hang around with the same old gang.

You have the Brooklyn hoodlum and the madam and all the other crazies inside you. Most of the time you keep them quiet, deep within yourself. But part of the time you want them to come out; or you NEED them to come out; or you know they’ll do great harm but you’ll let them come out anyway; or you’ll yield to them and claim to be an unwilling victim. “I couldn’t help it!” In short, need, want, obligation, oversight, or compulsion might all cause one of those crazies to pop out of you and do his song-and-dance.

Since the crazies will come out anyway, how can you use their energies and skills constructively? Stay tuned!

The Mask, Part 1: You Are Many

It’s an undeniable biographical fact that you’ve had the experience of becoming a different person just because you put on a striped shirt, or a knit tie with a ketchup splotch, or a fancy new pair of eyeglasses. Or because you got a new haircut, or because you shaved that beard you had worn for twenty years. Or because you talked to a Norwegian tourist at a street corner and, almost unwillingly, you started imitating her accent. Then you weren’t “you” anymore, but a completely different person with a whole other inner life.

Inside you there are dozens of different personalities raring to come out. And all it takes for any of them to take over your life is a simple trigger that I'll call the Mask: a shirt, a tie, a word said with a funny accent. In this series of blog entries we’ll look at how Multiple Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of every human being, and how the Mask is an effective way for you to tap into all your personalities and their respective talents and strengths.

We don’t talk to our bankers in the exact same way we talk to our infant daughters. We behave one way in the shower, another in public; one way at mass on Sunday morning, another watching Monday Night Football; one way with our wives, another with our mothers-in-law. We change our minds over time, according to context and to specific needs and wants. We change our body language, our tone of voice, our discourse—all those things that are visible and audible to the world. But we also "wear" different priorities, beliefs, convictions, and many characteristics that aren’t so immediately obvious.

Let’s take as axiomatic (and that means, “so obvious we don’t need to argue about it!”) that we all have many sides to our personalities… which is just another way of saying we have many personalities. Out of our inner multitute, a certain unity arises, highly complex, complicated even, full of contradictions and paradoxes, messy—but unified all the same. You may be a rock star singing in the shower and a sniveling beggar asking your banker for a line of credit. And yet the star and the beggar both are YOU, absolutely and totally the same “you” and not two different people.

This paradoxical version of the Multiple-Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of a human being. There are risks and dangers to it, of course. But it’s truly innate, inevitable, and desirable. You don’t want to talk to your banker the way you sing in the shower—trust me on this. You’re much better off if you’re able to change your posture, your tone of voice, your "everything."

In the next post I’ll tell you how.

Working on yourself, part 4: The one-man band

In my recent posts I introduced the concept of working on yourself in order to dissipate your fears and fulfill your talents, and I suggested that the attitude you bring to the task determines whether you’re in fact working on yourself or just floundering, skating, coasting, retreating, or otherwise going backward rather than forward. Then I proposed that you build a team to help you work on yourself, and I finished my last post with a riddle: Who's the most important member of a one-man band?

A one-man band traditionally is a musician who plays several instruments at the same time, often accompanying himself while singing. The archetypical one-man band is a guy playing the guitar, with a harmonica affixed to his head and ready for hands-off playing, and a tambourine tied to his leg.

In the one-man band, the most important member is the man—that is, the guy at the center of the whole enterprise. The guitar, the harmonica, the tambourine, and anything else that comprises the band are all secondary.

The members of my team are like the guitar, the harmonica, and the tambourine of a one-man band. They each make a different kind of music, with their own individual voices. But without my own efforts at unifying their voices into a harmonious whole, we might as well call the whole concert off.

There are risks and dangers in every situation, and working on yourself with the help of a team is no exception, however competent and helpful your team members may be. I see two main risks in working with a team. There’s a scene in “Casablanca” that bugs the heck out of me every time I watch it. Ingrid Bergman, who plays Ilsa, cuddles with Humphrey Bogart, who plays Rick. She’s freaking out about their adulterous relationship and the war in the background.

ILSA
Oh, I don’t know what’s right any longer.
You’ll have to think for both of us, for all of us.


RICK
All right, I will.


That’s perverted! That’s morally wrong! That’s just plain ugly! The thing in this life is to think for yourself, to make your own choices, and to live with the consequences of your choices. That’s the very definition of freedom. In a tyranny—like the very Nazism of which Ilsa is a victim—other people think for you, make decisions for you, impose their decisions on you. Ilsa’s pleading for Rick to think for her is a submission to tyranny. And Rick’s accepting to do it is, shall we say, counterproductive. It infantilizes Ilsa, makes her handicapped and dependent. It’s no solution to the problem. It is the problem!

It’s the same thing when you work on yourself with the help of a team. You risk being tempted to let other people “think for you.” You risk falling under the spell of someone who appears superior to you in some way, and this simply serves to make you inferior. It doesn't matter how brilliant your team members may be: In the end, you gotta think for yourself and make your own decisions.

The second main risk in working with a team is dispersion, or the contrary of integration. We all have many aspects to our personalities, many talents and possibilities lying within. To develop these talents is one thing; to have all talents collaborate to make you whole is another thing. If the team is working to make you whole, that’s great. But if the team is pulling you apart—or, more precisely, if you’re letting the team pull you apart—then you need to rethink your strategies. Fire the guitar player, chuck the harmonica, dump the tambourine, and sing a cappella, naked and all alone in the world. In other words, quit the one-man band and become a “one-man.”


Working on yourself, part 3: The Team

In my recent posts I introduced the concept of working on yourself in order to dissipate your fears and fulfill your talents, and I suggested that the attitude you bring to the task determines whether you’re in fact working on yourself or just floundering, skating, coasting, retreating, or otherwise going backward rather than forward.

What about building a team to help you? Most people have their own informal circle of friends, advisers, teachers, and partners, but it could be useful to bring a little discipline to the team.

A good “ear” is essential: someone who can listen to anything you want to say without judgment or censorship, perhaps even without actually giving advice. My friends Debby and Ed are very much like that. With them I can say any absurd thing about myself and about other people, reveal my foibles and weaknesses, and kvetch about petty concerns without their giving me a hard time about it. Debby and I usually start laughing within sixty seconds of any of our phone calls. Ed understands me so well I sometimes don’t have to say anything whatsoever. I think my thought, he thinks his absolute agreement, and we take another sip of coffee. If you don’t have one or two (or ten) friends like Debby and Ed, you might want to pay a professional to play the role of non-judgmental ear.

Your team might have a teacher or two. I had a singing teacher for 20 years from whom I took occasional but regular lessons in my trips to New York, until he passed away recently as a very youthful 97-year-old. Voice is identity: You are your voice, and to change your voice is to change yourself. Some of the sounds my teacher persuaded me to produce—enormous, vibrant, powerful—seemed to belong to someone very different from my everyday "me." My singing teacher pointed the way to a world of inner possibilities, and although he isn’t around any more I’m still learning his wonderful lessons.

Your team might have a non-doctor healer, someone with fine hands and the ability to speak to a non-verbal part of you—an osteopath, Alexander teacher, massage therapist, acupuncturist, you name it. Over the years I’ve had some memorable sessions with a cranio-sacral osteopath in Paris who wraps his soft hands around my skull and makes my brain and my mind go on a trip to the other side of the moon.

Your team might include someone who knows about symbols, numbers, dreams, words, metaphors, archetypes—in short, someone who helps you interpret the stories your unconscious tells yourself. My expert is a German-Swiss woman who’s a veritable encyclopedia of symbology. She’s a literal translator, preparing French versions of German texts about Carl Jung’s work, but she’s also a metaphorical translator. I dream in a convoluted language called Pedronics, she translates it into crystalline French, and I go home understanding myself rather more clearly.

A good team is dynamic: It changes with time. You might need a member of your team for years, another for months, yet another for a single encounter. You might learn a tremendous amount from someone in your team, and at some point you might need to stop seeing him or her: the task is done, or you’ve changed a lot and your team member hasn’t followed along… or you realize you’ve been mistaken about this person’s merits all along. You might need to fire team members, to replace a member who goes missing like my singing teacher, to open up the team or to streamline it.

I finish this post with a riddle that hints at the subject of my next one:

Who's the most important member of a one-man band?

Working on yourself, part 2: In the bodega of life

Suppose you start studying a new skill. For the sake of argument, let’s say you take up cordon-bleu cooking, learning to prepare elaborate meals for yourself, your family, and your friends. The apparent subject matter of your studies is “food.” Choosing and buying ingredients, setting up menus, practicing techniques, everything you study revolves around food.

Well, that’s an illusion.

If you’re a really good student, everything you study revolves around yourself. How do you interact with your cooking teacher? What kind of listener are you? Do you tend to jump to conclusions and start preparing a dish even before the teacher finished explaining things? And when there’s a little accident in the school kitchen, how do you react to it? Do you get angry when a colleague takes your wooden spoon without asking for permission? Or are you afraid of conflict, so you make nice-nice with absolutely everyone in school, including the notorious child molester?

That’s what you are studying at all times: your own reactions and behaviors, your assumptions, your habits. If while learning how to cook you learn something about yourself—and, better still, if you change some of your psychic energies from negative to positive, from destructive to constructive—then you are working on yourself.

It may be counterintuitive to many people, but you actually learn anything faster and better if you pay attention to your own self first and foremost, and to the subject being studied only secondarily, be it cordon-bleu cooking, trigonometry, or sanskrit. There’s a fine line between self-awareness and self-absorption, of course, but navigating that particular zone also is an integral part of working on yourself.

The principle applies universally. That’s why doing even seemingly banal things like calling a friend on the phone or going around the corner to the bodega to buy a pack of bananas can be called “working on yourself.” When you pursue any one activity mindlessly, you’re letting your psychic energies dissipate and stagnate. When you enter any one activity with a mixture of curiosity and commitment, you’re renewing and refreshing your psychic energies.

Some tasks you face when working on yourself are huge—patching a troubled marriage, for instance, or coming to terms with disease. Others are much smaller. The idea is for you to become good at working on yourself regardless of the task. Start small if you need to, and hone your skills by opening up your curiosity about yourself and your commitment to the here and now, in the bodega and beyond.

And while you’re at it, get some Häagen-Dazs to go with those bananas.