Isn’t it strange that you can practice law, practice the piano, have a spiritual practice, and practice for your wedding?

Maybe it’s just a play on words. Or maybe the word “practice” itself is rich in meaning, and therefore useful to us. It comes to us from Greek, via Latin.

Greek praktikos "fit for action, fit for business; business-like, practical; active, effective, vigorous," from praktos "done; to be done," verbal adjective of prassein, prattein "to do, act, effect, accomplish."

To act, to accomplish; effective, vigorous. And “not theory.” Not in your head, not in a book, not a dogma, not dead. Practice must be a doing, even if you practice it in a Zen-like non-doing manner.

For our purposes, we’ll define it as something that you do regularly, in a committed and organized manner, leading to an increase in awareness and presence. It exists in a thousand forms, including the professional set of skills learned and performed with a particular frame of mind (to practice law), the creative set of skills borne of exercising specific gestures over weeks, months, and years (to practice the piano), and the quest for connection with the ineffable through prayer, meditation, song, and sacrifice (to have a spiritual practice).

How to practice practice, so to speak? Walking works beautifully for many people. Decide to walk every day—perhaps to and from work. Or perhaps as a break from work: a walk in the park, or pacing the rooftop terrace of your office building and thinking about life over a hundred rounds of a very short walk, back and forth, back and forth. Walking the dog is a practice.

You can get serious and take the Road to Santiago, the pilgrimage first established in the 9th century. Walk from somewhere in Western Europe all the way to Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain.

Or decide to walk barefoot, full-time or part-time. My friend John does it full-time, and he’s, like, oh man, so alive! Inspired by John, I started walking barefoot part-time three years ago. There have been whole days in which I stayed barefoot, including in winter, out in the rain, or riding public transportation. It’s an exercise in awareness and in not-worrying-about-what-people-would-say. And it happens to be extremely pleasurable.

Another practice is committing to a time and a place, and going there on a regular basis. It could be the street market every Sunday, for instance. Plan your meals, interact with the fruit sellers, watch people, taste fresh foods, enjoy life.

Or go to Starbucks frequently and use it as an office, for creative work or for office work. You can go to the same café many times in a row, or to a different café each time. Both have merits. The main thing is to go and be there, doing something again and again over weeks and months. You’ll meet people at your Starbucks office, make friends, become attached to the place and its neighborhood. And you’ll get your work done. How different is it from going to a corporate job and sitting in a cubicle looking at a computer screen? Perhaps it’s the same thing; or perhaps the cubicle can become the same thing—that is, a practice—provided that you find the attitude that transforms a constraint, imposed by circumstances, into a commitment you choose to make, with the result of your becoming alert and present.

Spiritual practice takes a thousand shapes. Here’s one: going to church every week, or perhaps most days, or perhaps every day, or perhaps twice a day. One of my devout friends calls the institution of the church a vessel for his spirituality.

My friend considers that there is no spirituality without a vessel. Dwelling in the vessel is a practice, whether the vessel is material (a building) or symbolic (a paradigm and an institution). Perhaps it’s the practice that matters, rather than the vessel. Or perhaps the vessel counts for something. All I know is that entering temples, cathedrals, chapels, and basilicas, in Paris and in my travels, is always transformative. I wonder what would happen if I did it every day, without exception.

A lifetime commitment to the church is, of course, a very formal and deep practice. Other spiritual practices are more informal. Some formalists pooh-pooh the informalists. But that's OK; the informalists pooh-pooh the pooh-pooh.

You can practice a simple exercise, returning to it often and over a span of years. In sports there are many such exercises: the golf swing, the free throw in basketball, the rope skipping of a boxer. Here’s a kind of warm-up stretch. Sit on the floor, with legs bent; bring the soles of your feet together, and hold your feet with your hands; try to lower your knees until they touch the floor; now lean your trunk forward. Do it once or twice, and it comes across as an uncomfortable and possibly useless exercise. But do this one stretch every day for twenty-five years, and you might discover all sorts of dimensions, to the exercise and to yourself as you respond to the exercise.

The form of your practice—yoga, Tai Chi, tango—might be very important . . . or not. After all, every form has its enlightened practitioners and its zombies. Shadow boxing could be as integrative as an ancestral martial art. Air guitar? You bet. “Star Wars” lightsaber play-acting? Of course. The main thing is to commit to the practice and to do it with all your heart.

And then there’s the practice of a creative skill, whether you do it professionally or for pleasure alone. A drawing a day, for instance—fast or slow, as you wish; take thirty seconds or thirty minutes. Choosing pencils, sharpening them, leafing through a sketchbook, translating the swirling images of a street corner into arm and hand gestures that make marks on paper . . . if you think about it, the act is by no means banal. It’s transformative in many ways. Do it steadily over days and months, and something will get reorganized inside yourself: the way you look at the world, the way you absorb and interpret information, the way you pay attention.

The practice is primary, the skill secondary; or, to put it differently, it’s only by practicing that you gain the skill. You might want to say, “But I don’t know how to draw!” Sure, sure. That’s why you practice, you dummkopf!

A smartphone and an Instagram account, and—hey, presto! You can practice photography. Publish crappy photos of pizza slices if that’s your thing. Or develop the art of perceiving, thinking, and deciding. Photography is the reason or excuse (or vessel) to open up your mind and heart.

Walking, going to the market, stopping at Starbucks, visiting a monument, taking photos with your smartphone . . . Is there any difference between practice and life?

Nah. Life is an Integrated Practice.

© 2016, Pedro de Alcantara

The Spinning Stool

On a recent trip to New York City, I visited the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Museum Design, up on Fifth Avenue along Central Park. The museum is a compact place featuring many delights for anyone interested in design, engineering, architecture, visual arts, communication, and information.

I started on the third (and top) floor, where I saw a temporary exhibition celebrating the creative accomplishments of Heatherwick Studio, a London-based design and architecture firm. Then I went to the second floor, the highlight of which was the Immersion Room, a sort of wraparound, room-size toolbox in which you can design and digitally display your own wallpaper. Then I descended to the first floor, where another temporary exhibition led you through a series of brilliant posters from decades past, showing you how poster artists use “principles of composition, perception and storytelling to convey ideas and construct experiences” (in the museum’s words).

By then I had already had any number of uplifting and enlightening experiences, but the basement remained to be explored. There I found a strange object, a cross between a stool and a spinning top made of hard plastic (or, to get technical, “rotationally molded polyethylene”). Created by those accomplished fellows from the Heatherwick Studio, this “spinning stool,” so to speak, is wobbly by design. You sit on it quite low, with your butt and most of your back cocooned against the stool’s inner curves. Then you lift your feet off the floor and . . . and the thing starts wobbling, with you in it. Meaning, YOU start wobbling in space, seemingly out of control, seemingly in danger of falling off and breaking your neck.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the famous five stages of loss and grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What’s interesting about these stages is how dynamic they are; they imply change, movement, and finally growth.

Riding the wobbly spinning stool, I felt myself passing through four stages. They weren’t similar to the actual stages of loss and grieving, but they were certainly dynamic—and, like the stages of loss and grieving, they involved strong emotions.

First stage: “I don’t wanna do this. It looks unsafe. I was never any good at sports. I’ll fall, people will laugh, everyone will know I’m a pathetic old fool.”

Second stage: “Okay, I’m doing it. How does it work? Wow, it’s so low. And if I take my feet off the floor . . .? Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod! Someone, stop this! Pleeease, let me out!”

Third stage: “Hey, it’s kinda nifty. It kinda feels nice. You can kinda control it with just a little sway of the hips. Hmmm . . .  groovy . . . hmmm . . . it reminds me of Woody Allen having sex with the Orb in ‘Sleeper’ . . . hmmm . . ."

“Hmmm . . . was it the Orb or the Orgasmatron? Hmmm . . .”

When I stood up from the Orgasmatron—I mean, the wobbly spinning stool—I noticed that my whole body felt loose and energized, as if I had just had a session with a skilful sacrocranial osteopath. In fact, the spinning stool had healed me from the feelings I had before I sat on it—my feelings of fear and inadequacy.

Fourth stage: “I love the spinning stool. Let me wobble again. I could wobble all day. I’m good at it, and it’s good to me! I’m so full of love I could kiss that guard standing by the door over there!”

Two Japanese women entered the room while I was enjoying my spin. One of them sat cautiously on another stool. It wobbled a little bit, and she panicked big time. She let out a heartbreaking yelp, and her friend helped her get off the stool. That was it for the two of them. Let’s get the heck out of this spinning room! Sayonara, Cooper-Hewitt!

I felt for them.

We all have our blocks, our fears, our habits and compensations, our pains, our preconceived ideas . . . our hatreds. A new tool (or a person or an idea) enters our lives. Our first perception of the tool is that it’s a threat, a danger, a horror. Then we employ the tool with our habitual fears, we respond awkwardly to the situation, and the tool seemingly confirms our perception of its dangers: it hurts us, it humiliates us, it . . . it makes us wobble uncontrollably.

When handling the tool (or person or idea) that carries potential solutions to our problems, we tend to get stuck in the first stage, where we’re so deeply triggered by our habits that we don’t even see the tool. Instead, we see in it a projection of our fears.

And yet, this tool (or person or idea) happens to be the solution to our problems; it heals our fears and dissipates our hurts, and it makes us feel really, really good.

Let’s call the four stages fear, exploration, practice, and love. The passage from one to the other requires courage and determination. Along the way, there are many possibilities for things to go not to your liking—that is, for things to go wrong according to your subjective assessment, perhaps so wrong that you’ll feel justified in quitting. But if you stick it out . . . you’ll want to kiss the guard.

Symbolically speaking, of course.

Or literally speaking. It’s your call!

[And if you’re curious about the five stages of grief and loss, here’s an infographic.]

The Void

The Void

An excerpt from my work-in-progress The Integrated Writer

Your little child is running outside. She trips, falls, hits her face against a stone step, hurts herself badly. After a few seconds of suffocated silence, she starts screaming. She may have broken her jaw.

What do you do?

Some years ago I witnessed this very scenario. I was at Les Halles, a busy shopping mall in the heart of Paris. Inside the complex there’s a small courtyard, with stone steps leading to a terrace. The girl was about two years old. She was running at full tilt with unbound excitement, and when she rushed onto the steps she fell face down, hitting her jaw on the stone. The sound her jaw made against the stone was horrifying and indescribable.

Her father was standing right next to her. Immediately after she fell, he exclaimed, loudly enough for all to hear: “I told you not to run like that!”

We can’t know for sure what was going on through his mind. Is he that much of an insensitive father, a control freak, a monstrous disciplinarian? Perhaps; there certainly exist guys like that. Was he concerned with other people’s assessment of his ability to “educate” his child? It’s possible, but we can’t know for sure. Was he just freaking out, and voicing the dread that his beloved daughter was badly hurt? That’s possible, too.

We can’t know any of that. But we can be almost sure that his reaction did nothing to solve the problem at hand, and most likely aggravated it.

Before we deal too harshly with this hapless parent, let’s accept that when faced with many of life’s problems, big and small, we all have the potential to act pretty much the way he did. We want the problem to disappear. We want the problem never to have existed. We want to blame other people for the problem. Or we find fault with ourselves, even when we are blameless. We feel angry, frustrated, and afraid. And we don’t want those emotions to stay inside us. We vent. We rant and rave. Or we act and do something.

More often than not, this makes the problem worse. Conflicts escalate. Our ability to think through the problem and its possible solutions gets clouded. The problem itself escapes us; we lose sight of what the problem actually is.

And that becomes the problem.

The father of my example put himself in a state. As long as he stayed there, he’d be unable to do anything constructive to solve that other, more pressing, problem: his endangered child, overwhelmed and helpless.

The father’s first duty toward her daughter (and in truth also toward himself) is to do nothing that aggravates the problem. And to make sure he doesn’t aggravate the problem, he must do nothing, period—perhaps for a microsecond, perhaps longer. The void (that is, doing nothing) provides room for all good things in the world to come in; but once the void is filled with something, all other possibilities are excluded, at least until room is made for them by the creation of another void. And the void is preferable to anything negative or destructive that occupies it.

The father does absolutely nothing for a moment that may be extremely short. During the moment of doing nothing, he gets a grip on himself; check his fear, his desire to act out on the fear, his impulse to have his child be the recipient of his fear. And then he picks up his child and calls for the ambulance.

Let’s open a parenthesis and look at a less urgent situation.

We take roller coaster riders and watch horror movies and smoke dope just so we can lose our balance, our sense of habitual safety. We like it, as long as we know our balance will be restored. Children do the same thing: they turn and turn and turn until they’re so dizzy they fall on the ground, laughing all the while. A child might trip and fall accidentally, in the playground or at the beach. She might decide the fall is no big deal. She’ll get up and resume her running, as happy as only a child knows how to be. Or she might ponder the situation for a brief moment. While pondering it, she hears her mother’s voice: “Ohmigod! Are you okay? Are you okay?” The mother certainly behaves as if she herself thinks the child is in danger. The child hears it, loud and clear: “Mommy is upset. That can only mean one thing: a bad thing has just happened. I . . . I did a bad thing. I’m hurt. I’ll be punished. Bwaaaah!”

Your fear? Yes, your child reacts to it.

Anger? You bet.

Scorn and mockery? Yep.

Well-meaning concern? Of course. The child reacts to every emotion. And a parent’s well-meaning concern is a potential burden for the child to carry. I think the parent serves the child best by a tender attitude that says, “I’ll help you if you want my help. I’ll leave you alone if you want to be left alone. Cry if you want to, suppress your crying if you want to. I’ll wait for you until you’re ready.” This is different from saying, “Cry, baby, cry.” Or “Don’t cry, baby, you’re all right.”

Now we go back to our example of a child badly hurt.

Who is the ideal ambulance driver? Someone cool and collected, in full possession of his driving skills, his sense of direction, his capacity to ask for a police escort or warn an ER of his impending arrival. The ambulance driver is neutral, alert, and intelligent.

Let’s say you get your daughter to the hospital. Let’s say she has fractured her jaw and needs facial surgery. Throughout the entire ordeal—accident, ER, surgery, intensive care, recovery at home—the child reacts to your thoughts and emotions. Your duty, then, is to put yourself in the ambulance-driver state: neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child hurts? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child is in intensive care? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child arrives home with her mouth wired shut? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent, at her service in whatever capacity she requires you to be.

The human potential for self-regeneration is remarkable. I used to see a doctor who would hear my complaints, then say, “Call me again in three months if it persists.” Often the complaints dissipated, and I wouldn’t need to call the doctor back. Time helps; attitudes and their energies help, too. If you keep focusing on the problem, you’ll think “accident, pain, fear, danger, hurt, frustration, anger, guilt.” This very thought spins negative and unhealthy energies. To solve the problem, then, you have to stop thinking of it, and turn your attention instead to the solution: the intermediate steps, the indirect procedures, the side trips and tangents that eventually lead to the problem’s dissolution.

You’re going to entertain the child, keep her company, give her small gifts. But if she wants to be left alone, you’ll do that, too. She has her own powers of self-regeneration, and by doing too much for her you may be sabotaging her recovery. It’s no good to keep telling her, “You’re strong, you’ll recover; you’re strong, you’ll recover.” If she’s strong, she doesn’t need to be told it; if she needs to be told it, she isn’t strong; if you keep telling her she’s strong, she’ll suss out that you’re saying, “You’re not strong enough to recover without my telling you again and again that you’re strong.” And she’ll behave accordingly.

Give her time, space, the possibility of her taking initiatives even if some of her initiatives carry risks and dangers—as do all initiatives, without exception. Haven’t you been telling the child how she strong she is? Let her be.

The solution for every problem in your life starts with your doing nothing—every last problem, including stage fright, writer’s block, a twisted ankle, a troubled sibling, an exam, a lawsuit, anything. Within yourself, create a void: a neutral, alert, and intelligent state in which you’ll be able to stop focusing on the problem and start focusing on the solution. And don’t wait until you have a problem. Embody the void, now and always. Thanks to you, many potential problems will be preventively “voided.”

©2015, Pedro de Alcantara

"I don't know, but I have a pretty neck"

In November, 2013, I gave a two-day workshop at the Trossingen music school in Germany, thanks to an invitation from Prof. Wolfgang Guggenberger. One of the participants, the young trumpeter Fynn Müller, wrote the article below for the music school's magazine.


"I don't know, but I have a pretty neck"

An Alexander Technique Workshop with Pedro de Alcantara

A special workshop took place at the conservatory. At the invitation of the trumpet class, the internationally renowned author, Alexander teacher and cellist Pedro de Alcantara gave a seminar on the basics of the Alexander Technique.

We, the participants – in addition to the students of the trumpet class, our number included guests from the trombone and the percussion class – had little or no experience or previous knowledge. We thus brought excitement, curiosity and a small measure of skepticism to the weekend. The first day involved group and partner exercises without instruments. The objective was not only to understand the principles of the Alexander Technique but to learn and experience them with our own bodies: the connection between head, neck, shoulders, spine, pelvis and the resulting changes in our habits of movement.

For one exercise, we leaned against a wall with outstretched arms and fingers. Question: with which body part are we actually supporting ourselves? We began to sense that all body parts are connected: the finger is connected to the hand – the hand to the arm – the arm to the shoulder – the shoulder to the back – the back to the hips – the hips to the legs and the legs to the feet and the ground. All parts of this chain are connected and work together to keep us balanced and poised.

In another exercise, we were asked to apply light pressure with our hand to the lower back of our partner. The partner was instructed to resist the pressure and not to allow himself to be pushed away. His “resistance” should be neither stiff nor relaxed. The aim was to achieve a powerful yet flexible energy balance. Rather than concentrating solely on the strength in his arm, the “pusher” was able to practice executing the movement with his whole body. Exercises such as these help to develop our body awareness. And we can then use this new awareness to execute all kinds of procedures. When we move, if we focus our attention on connections throughout the whole body, the movement becomes more natural, more organic and more powerful. Through attentiveness and presence, we gain a new ease of movement.

But the Alexander Technique is about much more than “just” harmonious movements or mastering a complex sequence of motions. A human being is an inseparable alliance of body and mind; work on one cannot be separated from work on the other.

Why do we tense up when we play a difficult passage? Why do we indicate the stresses with our head when we speak a complex rhythm? Why does our body tension go awry when we feel frightened or insecure? Internal emotional states (e.g. fear, insecurity) nearly always have an external physical “echo” and vice versa. When we feel overwhelmed, we become restless, think negatively or feel paralyzed. The Alexander Technique teaches us to maintain internal and external “poise” in such situations, to observe our breathing (there were many exercises on this, too) and to stay mindful. As a result, our perception remains in the moment and we do not allow ourselves to be ruled by insecurity or fear. The disquiet, the fear are there but we are able to perceive them calmly without “losing our heads.” This helps us to cope with difficult situations and deal better with stress, such as pressure to perform and stage fright.

On the second day of the workshop, the participants had the chance to give a performance or play audition pieces or a study. Then they were able to work with Pedro de Alcantara on applying the principles of the Alexander Technique to the practical situation with their instrument. Many mental “side issues” came up that negatively affect our work irrespective of problems with playing technique: how do I deal with my mistakes? What effect do my thoughts and emotions have on my inner calm and concentration? A trumpeter misses the high “E flat” in the Haydn concerto – and curses.  The simple advice of Pedro de Alcantara is: “Don’t judge – perceive only.” Do not evaluate, do not classify with the labels “good” and “bad.” Perceive what is happening and do not deprive yourself of the power of clear thought by getting caught up in emotions. False, lacerating self-criticism, a reproachful inner judge can be damaging, too. Pedro de Alcantara’s “mantra” for such a situation is simple: “I don’t know / I can’t do – but I have a pretty neck!” This means: keep your outer and inner poise. A mistake or a failure does not make us “worse human beings” and our poised neck and head remind us of this. In this way, we gain the calmness, power and confidence to overcome our shortcomings.

Of course, experience of working on ourselves not only plays a role at the instrument. It affects our lives in general. The way we play our instrument (relaxed or tense, precise or imprecise, over-critical or superficial, etc.) reflects our personality. The Alexander Technique provides the opportunity to learn to deal with ourselves healthily – as musicians and people, in our physical movement and in our thoughts. In this respect, the course with Pedro de Alcantara was a considerable enrichment and an “integrated” course in the truest sense.               

-- Fynn Müller

Translated from the German by Annie Edwards

Photos by Pedro de Alcantara


Not Flamenco

I know close to nothing about flamenco. Like many other people, I've seen bits and bobs of it on the Internet or in the movies; I've heard flamenco-inspired guitar playing, recorded and live; and I've play-acted my ignorant version of flamenco for fun, stomping my feet and clapping as I twirl around the room. But this blog post isn't about my scant knowledge of flamenco, or even about flamenco, period. It's about a voyage we all take in our lives. It starts in innocence, passes through crippling self-consciousness, and ends (for some of us) in mastery.

As young kids we dwelled in experience and sensation, not spending much psychic energy on discernment  (anything goes into the mouth!) and only occasionally on judgment (hunger not good!). Our minds were free from constraints, preconceived ideas, "shoulds" and "musts." And we were so, so very adept at learning! We learned our "mother tongue" like we learned breathing and walking--without intellectual calculation, playfully, easily, joyfully.

The toddler below is learning his "mother dance" of flamenco through a process of observation, imitation, and improvisation. He already has the spirit of it, the energy of it, the flamenco-ness of it. He "embodies flamenco."

Talented children can take this native ease very far. The young fellow in the next clip embodies his native flamenco with terrific virtuosity. He's called Juan Manuel Fernandez Montoya, better known as Farruquito. To my eyes, he's focused, centered, and "invisible," by which I mean he allows us to watch "the wonder of flamenco" without getting distracted by "the particular individual who here embodies flamenco." His dancing isn't about Farruquito; it's about flamenco--something much bigger than him. Flamenco itself seems to be about the paradox of holding energies tightly within, the better to propagate them in every direction. The young Farruquito "becomes" containment and propagation, and watching him "I contain and propagate, by proxy."

Farruquito will grow up and leave his child-prodigy years behind him. Tragedy will struck--real-life tragedy, in the form of a hit-and-run accident that landed Farruquito in jail; and existential tragedy, in the form of a loss of innocence, a loss of freedom . . . in short, a deep loss. The invisible dancer who let us "watch flamenco" becomes visible, and begs us to "watch him." It's not the same kind of show, and it doesn't have the same effect. Don't get me wrong; the adult Farruquito is very accomplished, and obviously he dances the flamenco a thousand times better than I dance it myself. But the clip below leaves me uncomfortable. In earlier times, Farruquito danced with a steady core that rendered him stable despite his gyrations, and watching him "I became stable, by proxy." Now Farruquito is making the periphery (arms, clothes, hair, surface) more important than the core, and watching him "I become unstable, by proxy."

Farruquito is the grandson of a masterly dancer: Antonio Montoya Flores, El Farruco. In movement and in expression, El Farruco does very, very little . . . and yet he lets us know how much he's capable of doing. It's as if his flamenco were completely internalized, "not needing to come out anymore." Containment has become "it," and propagation is now only latent. El Farruco has nothing to prove, and watching him dance "I myself have nothing to prove, by proxy." I find it very healing. Perhaps Farruquito will one day pass from self-consciousness to self-forgetting again.

There you have it: innocence, loss, mastery. As I said, it's not about flamenco.


I performed a solo recital program at a beautiful little museum in Tallinn, Estonia. I played a couple of pieces by Bach for unaccompanied cello, plus a number of my own compositions employing the cello and the piano, as well as singing, whistling, and howling.

To open the program, I decided to devise an improvisation that would make me comfortable and confident, and that also concentrated the audience’s minds. So, I chose something emphatic and declamatory, and I practiced it a few times over two or three days.

Before I went to Estonia, I had a chance to record my improvisation at a studio in Paris. My recording engineer edited and mixed the improvisation. Here it is.


Then I tweaked his mix, adding a little resonance; and I tweaked my tweak, adding an echo that created the illusion of multiple instruments. Is it the same piece, or has it become something else?

Then I added my tweaked tweak as a soundtrack to a slideshow of mine. The slideshow, too, is a transformation: I took a small section of a painting by Anselm Kiefer and I submitted it to a series of editing decisions.

My desire to connect with the cello and with the audience materialized itself in gestures and sounds. Captured by a recording device, these sounds underwent a series of transformations. Now the sounds are a string of ones and zeros, beamed into your home from a satellite high above the Earth.

You might find it interesting to listen to my sound engineer’s version of my “thoughts and emotions,” then my tweak of it, before hearing it as a soundtrack to a slideshow. You’ll have your own thoughts and emotions about these ones and zeros. Transformation is the name of the game.

Reality & Illusion, part 5: In the Sandbox

(Previous Episodes: 1. Bach at McDonald's. 2. Bach's Invisible Cello. 3. A Cellist, a Pianist, and a Composer Enter a Bar. 4. Bach, Dead and Reborn.)

The confusion we make between illusion and reality affects every last little bit of our daily existence.


We create mystical beings in our imagination, and we assign them an objective, material reality. Among these beings are our teachers, our parents, our siblings, our friends—in fact, every person in our lives. It’s hard to crack this illusion, but “my cello teacher,” for instance, was in truth “my perception of my cello teacher,” rather than a tangible being with recognizable material properties. These days “my perception of my cello teacher” has become “my memory of my perception of my cello teacher,” taking the teacher further into the realm of the illusory.

If you think Bach exists for real, you risk assigning him a sort of ultimate authority; Bach would have “the last word” as concerns his music. And you risk assigning many other people minor-deity status, with everyone conspiring to pass judgments and create constraints—Fournier, Bazelaire, Casals, Starker, Bijlsma, Rostropovich, Ma, and a thousand teachers, players, writers, listeners, family, and friends.


To give an example, when I told my cello teacher back when I was 14 that I wanted to become a professional musician, she said to me, with some sadness in her voice, “But you’ll never be a Pierre Fournier.”

Realistically, I think she was telling me that I wasn’t very good and wasn’t going to become very good either. Pierre Fournier, the blessed high priest, was a herald of the sacred texts of the fountainhead Johann Sebastian Bach. And I, unsightly adolescent, was unworthy of the priesthood. I should become an accountant, maybe. Or a mass murderer.

For a long time I struggled with the high priests inside my head, telling me that “my Bach” wasn’t “as good as Fournier’s” (or Casals’s or— whatever, whomever). I’d play Bach in my practice room, and the voices of the high priests moaned with pain about my intonation, my technique, my articulations, my haircut, you name it.

Then one day I became simple-minded, as it were. I asked myself an innocent little question. How would I play if I just decided to enjoy my own intimate relationship with the ambiguous blueprint, with all that “Bach-related information” that had come my way over the decades? How about I stop chasing Fournier’s ghost, and start chasing Bach’s ghost instead?

I went there. I ignored the musicologists, the cellists and non-cellists whom I’ve heard play over the years, my old teacher’s warnings, professional standards of technique, social standards of decency. I decided on my tempi, my dynamics, my bow strokes, my rubato, my everything. And I finally played “The Six Suites by Pedro de Alcantara and J. S. Bach,” in full ownership of my subjective half of the deal.

Did I play well? Such a question implies objective standards that point toward a thing called “reality.” Fournier probably wouldn’t have thought that I played well, but as it happens Fournier is also dead. His standards don’t count.


Did I enjoy myself? I was as happy as a barefoot three-year-old in a sandbox, playing without adult supervision. In my subjective perception I build castles, palaces, and entire cities using Bach’s blueprints, or what was left of these blueprints “after the earthquake.” I mean, the earthquake of reality and illusion clashing for supremacy.

In conclusion & in a few words: Bury reality in the sandbox and play with your illusions. No, no, sorry! Bury your illusions in the sandbox and enjoy reality in all its glory.

Reality & Illusion, part 4: Bach, Dead and Reborn

I love the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. On my list of greatest composers of all time, he shares first place with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

When I was 14 I heard the late Pierre Fournier, a great French cellist, at a concert in my hometown. He played César Franck’s sonata for cello and piano (originally composed for violin and piano) and Bach’s Sixth Suite (originally composed for the five-string violoncello piccolo da spalla), among other pieces. The morning after his recital I decided to become a professional musician. Subsequently I heard him in two other live performances, one in New York and one in London. I collected some of his recordings, including his Bach Suites.

Here's Fournier in action. 

I heard Janos Starker play the Fifth Suite in São Paulo. I heard Anner Bijlsma play several suites in a single program in New York. I heard Maurice Gendron play the Second Suite in London. (As it happens, I also took master classes with these three great cellists; I played for them and received their feedback, though not on Bach’s Suites.) I heard plenty of cellists of my own generation play movements and whole suites. My LP collection of old included the complete Casals set, the Fournier set, and the Fifth Suite played by Aldo Parisot, with whom I studied for two years in grad school. My CD collection includes two period-performance sets, one of which played wholly on the violoncello da spalla.


Bach wrote three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord. I performed all three, sometimes with piano, sometimes with harpsichord. I heard Bach’s flute sonatas, both solo and accompanied, multiple times. I heard Bach’s keyboard music played on the piano, the organ, the harpsichord, and the clavichord, and I played a few of those pieces myself at the piano. I heard his orchestral pieces, and played several of them in my youth—the Brandenburg Concertos, the Suites, a violin concerto or two. I heard the Passions and learned a couple of recitatives with my first singing teacher. I heard some of the cantatas, some of the oratorios, many of the trio sonatas. I know the six sonatas and partitas for violin solo by heart. As a teacher and coach, I’ve looked closely at many of Bach’s compositions, helping pianists, violinists, and singers—among others—figure out what’s going on and how best to learn the compositions and perform them.

It's quite paradoxal. Bach seems very present in my life. Yet Bach doesn’t exist.

What exist are my perceptions of Bach; my perceptions of Fournier and Starker playing Bach; my memories of my perceptions of Fournier, playing—more than forty years ago—an ephemeral, subjective version of an incomplete and ambiguous blueprint.

It’s how it goes, inevitably, for all of us. Using tools that we manipulate subjectively—the tools of sight and sound, the tools of analytical thinking, the tools of emotion and intuition—we take some “Bach-related information” (which could be a printed score or something learned by ear or something we’ve culled from a thousand disparate experiences and encounters) and we use all that information to shape “our Bach.”

And then we go psychotic and say, “This is Bach.” Or, “This is by Bach.” Or, “Bach composed this.”

I Am Bach2.jpg

No, no, and no.

You ought to say, “This is me, fashioned in a Bach costume.” “This is by me, as the result of an ongoing process that includes Bach-related information.” “I composed this, borrowing from Bach and multiple other sources going back decades. Strangely, every note in it ‘looks and sounds’ like the notes on a printed score with Bach’s name on it. Don’t you love those extensive, unexplainable coincidences?”

When Johann Sebastian Bach played the music of J. S. Bach way back when, "Bach was Bach." When I play the music of J. S. Bach today, “Bach isn't Bach.” He's . . . a hybrid, a body-snatched 300-year-old Brazilian-Prussian undead mutant.

A thing of beauty.

I’ll bypass the impossible task of delineating reality and illusion, and I’ll say that I prefer the psychosis in which Bach doesn’t exist to the psychosis in which Bach exists.

The moral of the story? It's a story in itself. Come back soon. 

Reality & Illusion, part 3: A Cellist, a Pianist, and a Composer Enter a Bar

I've been posting about reality and illusion, using the music of J. S. Bach as my starting point, and my experiences playing Bach's cello suites as the backbone of the discussion. And I've been trying to ask a strange question. Do the Six Suites for Solo Cello exist? Does Bach himself exist?


I think all is illusion—or, rather, our subjective approach to Bach and to anything else "is" the reality. Bach’s Suites don’t exist as an absolute quantity or quality, as something forever unchanging, as something that all observers can agree upon with any degree of certainty. Like the quantum physicists who believe that the physical world doesn’t exist outside your perception of it, I believe that Bach’s Suites don’t exist outside what you make them to be—in your mind, your ears, your cello or marimba playing, your emotions, your thoughts, your family history, and everything else that forms the entity known as “you.” (BTW, quantum physicists believe that you don’t exist either, or me, or anyone or anything else. But this isn’t pertinent to this discussion.)

It is, however, exceedingly easy to fall prey to the illusion of the Suites’ reality, and to conduct your life as if they were, indeed, real.

If you believe that the Suites exist, you practice the cello in a certain way. You think long and hard about historicity, Bach’s intentions, the acoustic properties of the Baroque cello (or the viola da spalla or the violoncello da span or the . . .) and the environment where the Suites were originally performed, the manuscripts by Bach’s wife and students, what the scholars think, what the musicologists think, and a thousand other considerations.

If you believe that they’re illusory, you practice in a whole other way. You may or may not pay attention to the musicological issues. You may or may not try to find out how the Baroque cello (or the viola da spalla or the . . .) sounded like. You may or may not compare different editions. You may or may not listen to the highly regarded scholar-performers who give period-instrument performances. You may or may not listen to Casals, Ma, Rostropovich, or anyone else.

One attitude says, “You can’t start that Sarabande on an up-bow. Nobody would have done it in Bach’s time.” The other says, “How would it sound like if you started that Sarabande on an up-bow?”

One attitude says, “Certain things are nonnegotiable.” The other says, “Everything is possible.”

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There are merits and demerits to both approaches. Some disciplined musicians have given a lot of thought to historical, acoustic, and aesthetic issues; shaped their techniques to follow unyielding strictures; and given marvelous performances as a result. Others who have thought many of these lofty thoughts have given terrible performances. I once attended a concert by a star pioneer of the period-instrument movement. I left in the intermission, regretting the time and money wasted. Same with the everything-is-possible crowd. Thirty-five years ago I heard an unforgettable performance of the Third Suite on the marimba, played with divine beauty by a young man at a street fair in New York City. And I’ve heard plenty of performers unconstrained by taste, technique, or any degree of self-awareness do unspeakable things to Bach.

What does it all mean, in practice? What is a musician to do with all this metaphysical information?

The reason why András Schiff got me thinking is that some people think the music of J. S. Bach shouldn’t be played on the modern piano. It wasn’t “meant” to be played on the piano. It was “meant” to be played on the clavichord, a lovely plinky-plink instrument known to have been a favorite of Bach’s. According to this view, the mechanisms of the piano are in antagonism with the notes, phrases, and musical structures as conceived by Bach, and it’s a musical, sonic, aesthetic, historical mistake to play Bach on the piano.

Well, I think Bach’s keyboard music, much like the cello suites, doesn’t exist as an absolute entity. What exists is the inevitable, necessary, deeply personal, all-too-human interaction between the player and a vaguely delineated object called “the score.”


The interaction between the score and the player is subjective, and so is the interaction between the listener and the entity now known as the-interaction-between-the-music-and-the player. I hear András Schiff do his subjective thing, and I have a subjective reaction of pleasure, even of love. It’s a love triangle: Bach, Schiff, and Alcantara, united in a single, continuous experience. Bach passed away centuries ago, and he’s really not thinking about Schiff or me or anyone else. Schiff has no idea that I exist—or perhaps he has an abstract idea of having many listeners, but he doesn’t play “for me” in person. And yet, when I listen to Schiff play Bach, we three are one. In that moment, “I am Schiff, I am Bach.”

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi talks beautifully about how a certain form of listening creates a union between the sound and the listener.

Come back soon, and I'll tell you a ghost story.

Reality & Illusion, part 2: Bach's Invisible Cello

In my last blog post I remarked that listening to the pianist András Schiff playing the music of J. S. Bach got me meditating about reality and illusion.

I first studied Bach’s music as a 14-year-old cellist, growing up in São Paulo, Brazil. Bach composed six suites for solo cello. The sixth of them he wrote for a five-stringed instrument tuned like a standard cello (from the bottom up, C G D A) with an added E string. Some well-trained minds speculate that Bach never meant his pieces for the cello as we know the instrument today, but for a large viola-like instrument held from the player’s shoulder by a strap. This instrument is called by some people a violoncello da spalla . . . and by other people a violoncello piccolo da spalla or violoncello da span . . . and by some other people a viola da spalla. It’s said that Bach and other composers of the time (three centuries ago) called this instrument violoncello.

Here's a spirited violoncello da spalla performance of a movement from Bach's Sixth Suite. The performer is Sergey Malov.


Now let's go back to the 14-year-old kid in Brazil. Playing a modern cello made from materials that didn’t exist in Bach’s time, the kid buys a score for a piece composed for some other instrument; and the score is in fact a Frenchman’s heavy-handed interpretation of Bach’s wife’s dictation of the piece, and no one can be sure how she ever went about taking down that dictation in the first place. Reality or illusion? Was I really playing Bach's actual cello suites? Or was I having some sort of rather subjective head trip?

Over the centuries since their composition, these pieces went through multiple transformations in the minds and hearts of musicians. After Bach’s death most of his music “disappeared” from public awareness for a while, until (as all students in music history classes learn) the Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn “rediscovered” Bach and advocated his music anew—some of the music anyway, which was then performed in the fashion of Mendelssohn’s time.

The cello suites stayed out of public awareness for much longer. From time to time they were used as technical studies, and very occasionally some fool would play a movement or two in performance. I say a “fool” because the suites weren’t really considered “music.” (Reality and illusion, anyone?)

Pablo Casals finally brought the suites out from oblivion, studying them in depth, performing them in public as works of art, and recording them as a complete set in 1938 and 1939. Here's the great man, performing the First Suite in 1954.

Since Casals’s time, the Suites have become an integral part of the canonic repertory. Thousands of cellists of all ages and abilities have performed the pieces hundreds of thousands of times all over the world. These cellists practiced passages from the pieces hundreds of millions of times. Some notes in some suites have been played more than a billion times. I myself made a modest contribution to these statistics, adding roughly five thousand attempts at playing some of the suites in my practice room and in public from 1972 to 2013. Or ten thousand attempts, maybe. But certainly not more than fifty thousand attempts, at most.

Besides the thousands of cellists, tens of thousands of other musicians also studied or performed the suites, in whole or in part—including violists, trombonists, flutists, guitarists, lute players, marimba players, you name it.

According to an Internet source, there are over 80 printed editions of the suites, some claiming to be as close to Bach’s intended ideas as possible, others making no claims of any sort. I don’t know how many commercially available recordings there are, but a quick search of “Bach cello suites” on shows 1,482 choices as of January 14, 2013, with the top two spots being the complete CD sets by Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovitch.

Here’s a nifty thing as regards our discussion. This is how these top spots are listed at Amazon:

The 6 Unaccompanied Cello Suites Complete by Yo-Yo Ma and J. S. Bach (2010) 

Bach: Cello Suites by Mstislav Rostropovich and Johann Sebastian Bach (1995)

The players’ names are listed before the composer’s. The Suites are as if “by Yo-Yo Ma first and foremost, and also by J. S. Bach.” It could be a simple matter of information display, or a simple matter of marketing considerations. Or it could be food for thought if you’re interested in figuring out reality from illusion. Other choices in information display are available. The #4 item on Amazon’s page, for instance, is listed as “Bach: Cello Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach (2003)”, with the name of the performer not shown at all. (You can find out easily, of course. Click on the link for details. All right, I’ll tell you anyway: It’s Pablo Casals.)

Is it crazy for Yo-Yo Ma to be listed as a co-creator of the Bach Suites, or is it crazy for Pablo Casals not to acknowledge that he’s a co-creator of the Bach Suites?

To put it differently, do the 6 Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, by Johann Sebastian Bach (born 1685, died 1750) exist? Are they “real,” or are they “illusory”?

Does Bach himself exist?

Stay tuned.

Reality & Illusion, part 1: J. S. Bach at McDonald's

The other night I spent some time on YouTube watching the pianist András Schiff playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I’ve never seen Schiff perform live, and until now I wasn’t that familiar with his playing. I enjoyed it tremendously. His Bach sparkles and swings; his Bach speaks, laughs, and cries. It’s quite something.

Watching and listening to him got me thinking about reality and illusion.

paul_Bazelaire (2).gif

I first studied Bach’s Six Suites for solo cello in my adolescence. I was probably 14 when I sight-read the first suite, working from the one edition I was able to buy in my native São Paulo, in the classical-music backwater that Brazil was then (and, to a good degree, still is now). The edition was signed by Paul Bazelaire, a French cellist who was born in 1886 and died in 1958 (that's him on the cute photo). To Bach’s music, Bazelaire added dynamics, phrase markings, fingerings, metronome markings, and a thousand other indications. Later I bought several other editions of the suites. Over the decades I studied all the suites and performed several of them. I know them by heart, and like most cellists I only need to hear three notes from any excerpt to recognize which movement in which suite those three notes come from.


What is reality, what is illusion? The metaphysicians have been debating this for millennia. There are many viewpoints on the issue. A minority—a tiny minority—believes that reality is an objective situation shared by everyone. Some say that the whole of humanity is someone’s huge dream, with no objective existence. Others claim that reality is what you make of it. A guy and his girlfriend sitting quietly across each other at a Macdonald’s are in two distinct, separate, and perhaps even mutually exclusive realities. The girl is having feelings, thoughts, thoughts about her feelings, and feelings about her thoughts—some of which involve the guy, or a version of the guy she imagines day by day. The guy is communing with the salt, fat, and sugar, and he’d be surprised if the girl suddenly entered his awareness and addressed him. “Don’t interrupt me,” he’d say. And his using these many words would deplete his energies and justify his ordering another Big Mac.

The idea that the guy and his girlfriend share a single, objective reality is ludicrous.

When a performer views a score, metaphysical questions regarding illusion and reality are in fact not only pertinent but downright urgent. Three hundred years ago, a human being called Johann Sebastian Bach, living in a country that today is called Germany but that back then didn’t actually exist as a country in the modern conception of the world, composed a piece for solo cello. He seems never to have written the piece down, but his wife wrote it down for him, and so did a couple of his students. How? Did they hear Bach play it on the cello? Or did Bach play the notes on the clavichord, and the wife and the students wrote down the notes as if for the cello?

page1-593px-Bach_Cello_Suites_Facsmile 2.jpg

How come the scores came out a little different—in pitches, flats and sharps, slurs and articulations? If the versions differ (and remember, no version is in Bach’s hand), is one right and the others wrong? How can we tell? Is it important for us to be able to tell? How did Bach intend his piece to be played? And if he had specifics in mind, must we try to obey him? Does that mean that there’s only one way to play the piece—one legitimate, approved, sanctioned, sanctified way that renders all other ways criminal or sinful?

Nobody agrees on the questions—or on the answers. Watch this space for further developments.

A master communicator (and what a shirt!

Some months ago I blogged several times about musicians who don't move a lot when they perform. The subject merits repeated study, so let's look at something fantastic.

These two Brazilian guys here are experts on the art of improvising poetry and songs in public, in the style known as "repentista" in Portuguese. (Repentista comes from the word for "sudden.") They are both masters of the art . . . but the guy on the red shirt is exceedingly poised and well directed. You don't have to understand Portuguese to marvel at his back, his calm, his strength, and his communication skills!

Condensed energy is the name of the game.

How Musicians Can Benefit from the Alexander Technique

Robert Rickover interviewed me for his series Body Learning. Click here to listen to my interview, How Musicians Can Benefit from the Alexander Technique.

Here's how it starts!

Robert Rickover: Pedro could you begin by giving our listeners a short description or definition of the Alexander Technique?

Pedro de Alcantara:
I think the Alexander Technique is a way for you to solve a problem by putting the problem aside and working on yourself instead. Focusing on yourself, centering yourself, calming down, opening up your mind. If you really do all of that, most problems tend to disappear. That's why I titled my first book for musicians INDIRECT PROCEDURES. When you're trying to solve a problem, instead of doing it directly, you go in this indirect way where the problem is less important than your own thoughts and actions. By clarifying your thoughts and actions, the problem could disappear.

One of the best musicians, ever!

I recently watched an installment of the PBS documentary The Blues. One of the musicians featured in it astounded me: the pianist, singer, and comedian Martha Davis, who died at age 42 in 1960. She’s a brilliant performer, in total command of her materials and, more important, of herself. Watch these clips and wonder at her ease, her sense of timing, the latent powers in her playing and her singing, and her wicked sense of humor.

After enjoying these clips for their tremendous entertainment value, watch them again and see what you can learn from Martha Davis in practice. For instance, it seems to me that her poise of head, neck, back, shoulders, and arms plays a role in her mastery (as it does with Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, and all the other jazz greats I’ve blogged about in recent months).

I also think that Davis has found a perfect balance between “doing things for her own pleasure” and “doing things for the pleasure of her public.” In other words, she cares a lot about her public . . . and she probably doesn’t give a hoot about other people might think of her. Suppose the public really wanted her to push her head back and down into her neck, roll her eyes, and sweat up a storm in a display of “feeling.” Would she do it? I doubt it. She shares her talent with the public in a straightforward and casual manner that is also very generous and touching. But she doesn’t make a show of herself, so to speak. With her, it’s the materials that count—the rhythms, sounds, words, and jokes—and not her emotions about those materials. She’s an extravert but not a narcissist. My theory is that she loves herself without being in love with herself.

All right, enough with the fancy theories. I’m just going to watch her clips again (and again . . . and again!).



Reader Comments (2)

Pedro you site is positively inspirational. I love the Martha Davis Clip - I have seen this before, but was so glad to be reminded of it. Every time I feel a bit bogged down, I explore your site - so full of quality stuff. Thank you

February 14, 2011 |

I'm glad you enjoy my site . . . Davis is quite something. She died young (42) imagine what wonders she'd have produced had she lived longer.

February 15, 2011 | Pedro

Music hath charms . . .

The playwright and poet William Congreve – no, I don’t know much about him either – included the following line in THE MOURNING BRIDE, all the way back in 1697: “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”

His quote sometimes gets mangled, and people remember it as “Music hath charms to soothe a savage beast.” Either way I think we can all agree with him. Music is a wonderful, marvelous, divine, magical thing that can have the deepest effects upon all savages.

In this clip we see and hear the soothing, healing effects of music. Blood-hungry feral monsters become completely calm after listening to the mellifluous song of a Zen master. Rocks soften, knotted oaks bend, and the savage breasts become so civilized you could even let them eat dinner at your table.

Or not.

Merry Christmas!

A Model of Happiness and Joy

If you know anything about Wayne Newton at all, you probably think of a mainstream American singer who made his career mostly in Las Vegas, a big man with a big personality and a complicated personal and business life. But there’s another side to him. He was a sort of child prodigy, performing in public from a very early age. In fact Newton was a supremely talented young man—a singer of great charm and elegance, with a perfect sense of rhythm and a magnetic yet discreet presence on stage. It’s worth your while to watch this clip of a 26-year-old Wayne Newton singing one of his trademark songs, “Danke Schoen,” in 1968.

From head to toe, Newton is energized and directed. His head and neck are poised, and his shoulders relaxed. His legs and feet move only a little bit—but, oh, how intelligently, how creatively! The song gets bigger and more exciting moment by moment, but Newton doesn’t lose his cool at all. Instead he just “opens up his energy field,” so to speak. His sense of rhythm and phrasing is supremely sophisticated, every note and inflection sparkling with joie de vivre. And his voice is the very sound of happiness. If you’re a singer, instrumentalist, conductor, dancer, or actor . . . watch and learn!

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 7: Masters & God(s)

 The Oppositional Principle has had many adherents over the decades and centuries. Here’s how the playing of Johann Sebastian Bach was described in his lifetime.

At the clavichord Bach is virtually still. He plays effortlessly, the movements of his fingers 'hardly perceptible.' Those fingers not in action remain motionless, 'quietly in position.' The rest of his body takes even '[less] part in his playing.' His hands do not contort or register any strain even in the most difficult passages. Bach plays expressively but his body expresses nothing. (Quoted by David Yearsley in Bach and the Meaning of Counterpoint.)

The bad news is that there are no YouTube clips of Bach playing the clavichord. The good news is that there are multiple clips of someone who corresponds to the above description of Bach.

I’m going to let Chick Corea (a master of the Oppositional Principle) introduce the guy in question. There are masters and there are gods . . . most musicians would agree that Art Tatum is a god. Well, no. Art Tatum is God.

In my next post I'll make a detailed study of his playing.