every note is alive

Basho was a poet who lived 17th century Japan, considered one of the greatest haiku writers of all time.  It was said that Basho was once with a student, and they saw a dragonfly, and the student attempted to compose his thoughts on the experience:

A red dragonfly

If you would but pluck its wings

Look, a pepper pod!

Basho was angered by this poem, and considered it unacceptable.  He suggested this alternative:

A red pepper pod

If you would but give it wings

Look, a dragonfly!


As Basho explained, the problem with the first verse was that it killed the dragonfly.  And the goal of poetry must be to give life.   Our words, images, and sounds that make up an art object have power to give life or take it away – and a gifted musician must be able to recognize how even the notes themselves can be treated like living beings.

It is not at all uncommon for creative and motivated musicians (of any instrument or genre) reaching an intermediate or early advanced level to engage in what could be called “mindless shredding.” They are simply trying to play as many notes as they can, with as elaborate techniques as possible.  This musician has been working and struggling for years, and is rightfully thrilled when he or she is able to play difficult things well.  What may seem like “showing off” to the outsider is often a very natural celebration of a growing technique, of reaching a place where you feel empowered to truly actualize the music in your head.

This phase of virtuosity is an important step in the journey of becoming a creative musician.  However, a truly great musician will not stay there.  Imagine how tiring and frustrating it can be to talk with a person in love with their own voice, more interested in saying whatever in their head than in actually communicating with you. In the same way, simply playing faster, louder, or fancier for its own sake is not true artistry.  These techniques should be understood as tools, used thoughtfully to help you blend with another musician, and/or express a meaningful emotional message that connects you and your listener to something deeper.

The great composer J.S. Bach famously ended many of his manuscripts with the initials SDG, for “Soli Deo Gloria” – only for God’s glory.  Bach’s works are often characterized by a breathtaking degree of cleverness, creativity, and intentionality. Many of his choices and notes may seem unpredictable, but they were carefully chosen in a way that fits together ingeniously. By concluding them with those three letters, he demonstrated how the process of creating sound with wood, metal, air, wires, and animal skins can reach depths of profound spiritual expression as few other things can.

So how do you move from creating music that merely impresses the listener to something that is able to move him or her to deep spiritual and emotional truths?  I believe the answer lies in taking a step back, to listen carefully and thoughtfully to the sounds you can create, starting with what is most simple and adding to it with deep, playful intentionality.

Most human beings go through life with a relatively low-level of awareness of what’s really going on around them.  There are all kinds of sights and sounds that pass us by, because we don’t take the time to notice.  Chocolate tasting can be a really fun way to practice taking the time to slowly observe the messages the world is giving us through our senses.

1) Cleanse your palate – use a sip of water, a bite of apple, or a cracker to remove flavors of whatever you’ve eaten before, so that you can appreciate the flavors of the chocolate anew.

2) Look and smell – Take a small piece and look at the color and the shape.  At first glance, all milk and dark chocolate looks “brown,” but hold it in your hand and look closer, and let it rotate in the light.  You may notice a wide variety of tints, including pink, purple, red, or orange, that gives each chocolate a somewhat unique shade.  After what feels like a long time, bring the chocolate close to your nose, and inhale deeply, noticing the details behind the scent.

3) Place the chocolate on your tongue – don’t chew, but let it just melt on your tongue.  Is the flavor more sweet or bitter? Does the texture feel smooth, creamy, or dry?  Does it taste like any other kinds of food you’ve had before?

4) Notice the “flavor journey” – as the piece gets softer on your tongue, only chew a couple of times, if at all. Keep focusing all your energy on what the chocolate tastes like, and how it makes you feel.  You might notice that it tastes differently in the beginning, middle and end. After you’ve swallowed, does the flavor linger?

Alright – that enough time sitting around eating chocolate.  Let’s get down to some actual business:

1)  Cleanse your palate – before you even think about picking your instrument up, breathe deeply a few times.  You may have had a stressful day, or maybe you’re feeling anxious about your next gig or lesson.  Let those feelings go.  Bring your attention to the moment.  If you’d like, offer a brief prayer of gratitude for the privilege of music-making.

2)  “Look and smell” – that is, be slow and deliberate about your body’s motions.  Get into a good posture; stand up straight and relaxed.  Feel the instrument in your hands, take in its weight.  A beginning violinist has to think carefully about all the steps of putting the violin on the shoulder and holding the bow, but over time those motions become second nature and automatic.  For this exercise, they have to again be thoughtful and deliberate about every movement.

3)  Play a single note – With eyes closed, make a single sound on the instrument. String players should slowly pluck or drag a long bow across an open string. Singers and players of aerophones should take a deep breath and hold a single note out for as long as possible.  Percussionists should try a bell, cymbal, or Tibetan singing bowl – anything with a lot of resonance.  Feel and hear the vibrations, as they start, as they sustain, and as they end.  “Play” a few moments of silence before ending the exercise.

Ideally, every note you play should be imbued with meaning and expression. There is a time and a place for an impressive, rapid flurry of notes, but whatever we choose to play should ultimately have an emotional message behind it.  Learning to play fewer notes but still communicate a deep sense of expressiveness is a very helpful way to learn how to create improvised solos that truly move both the listener and creator.


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