Sonder

I came across this beautiful word just in the last few weeks. Who knew there was a word to describe so succinctly the complex web of relationships that exist in the world.

Time to ponder the depths and shallows of our existence, pushed by the flow we sometimes get caught in an eddy, forget where we are and mistake or daily motion as forward progress. Too busy with the minutia to take a step back and observe that we’ve been going round in circles. Contrast that with the knowledge that three is no harm in living an ordinary, medium sized life. We all like to aspire to a larger purpose or goal. For me, it’s live in the present, be present for myself and loved ones. Outside of that is the unknown territory — sonder.

Average of Five

“You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.”
–Jim Rohn

Make a list of the 5 people you spend the most time with. Then make another list for the 5 musicians you spend the most time with. Look at both lists and ask yourself what a person who didn’t know you but was acquainted with the people on your two lists might think of you. Do your associations define you? While we always say, don’t judge a book by its cover, we are always doing this because it’s an easy way to assess a situation.

For example, we meet and you introduce yourself as an accomplished bass player. I say, “I’m looking for a bass player for a new project, who have you played with recently?” Or the reverse, you ask me, “I’d be interested, what are some of your previous projects?” If you answer the local blues bar band and some artists I don’t know, then you are going to need to prove to me with your playing that you’re worthy to contribute to the project. Or, if I let you know about some projects I’ve played in that you’ve never heard of, then you may have less interest in participating in my project. You get the idea. Connections matter. Our associations are a form of social currency that we use to evaluate anyone we meet.

Now, look carefully at that list of musicians you just wrote down. Can you give yourself an honest self-evaluation of what another musician might think of your ability? Does that honest self-evaluation jive with your current self-image and what you want to project?

Keep an open mind about moving into better musical situations. It’s a good way to increase your contact with other musicians in your area and to strengthen your network. That doesn’t mean that you are turning your back on old friends and relationships, it just means that you are open to new situations that can help improve your level of musicianship and your standing in the local musical community. The possibility of landing better gigs, if that’s your goal, increases with more connections and exposure.

Billy Sheehan allegedly said that he would never leave his first band, Talas, except if Van Halen called and asked him to join. Just as Talas was breaking big, he got a call from David Lee Roth asking him to join his band. Billy had worked hard for years on his playing and his band, Talas, had worked to position itself for success. Billy chose the path that he thought would give him the best opportunity to achieve his goals. While I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Billy or the other members of Talas, Billy followed his path and has become the face of rock ‘n’ roll bass.

While you may be the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, you can work consciously to improve the quality of the people around you. If you find yourself in situations where you are the best musician, consider challenging yourself and jamming with musicians more accomplished. Audition for other bands or interview for a new job. Look to expand your circle of friends by adding people further along the path than you.

Bottom Line: Connecting with the right people creates opportunity.

Aware of What You Think

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
–David Foster Wallace

Just sit. Still. Sitting still is doing. Doing often relieves the stress of not doing. Cats sit with perfect posture. It is not in a cat’s nature to sit other than how they sit. Cats don’t think about how to sit, they just sit. A cat’s mind doesn’t bother with how to sit. We humans however do bother with how to sit. Not only do we think about how and where to sit but we sometimes put ourselves into an unnatural position that creates discomfort.

A cat exists within its environment. We exist mostly apart from our environment. When we are a part of our environment we are more at peace with ourselves and one with our surroundings. We are in it and it is in us. There is no demarcation between the outer limit of our body and the layer of clothing or air that touches us. Only our minds suggest that we have a boundary and we accept this concept instead of waiting for our mind to suggest a better alternative.

While the cat sits with proper posture our minds fill us with thoughts about the uncomfortable position we sit in. Our minds bend our bodies to the thoughts we choose to pay attention to. One thing we can control is choosing what thoughts we listen to. By doing this, we can relieve ourselves of our discomfort and sit with better posture like a cat.

Bottom Line: Practice sitting like a cat.

Trust the Process

“Rivers are easiest to cross at the source.”
–Publilius Syrus

Before starting a journey it’s a good idea to chart a course. Starting with a plan allows for a greater chance of success and a lesser chance for failure. If you begin with the end in mind and create a plan, then you’ll have a road map and a process of how to achieve the success you want.

The process of creating a plan enables you to break down the distant goal on the horizon into smaller, easier to conceptualize and achievable parts. Hopefully a plan will emerge that has steps that can be accomplished incrementally. If someone has gone before you, and often there is a pioneer that will have blazed a trail for you, you can be aware of some of the obstacles that you might need to overcome. Knowing what lies potentially in front of you will help you to prepare better and surmount obstacles as they arise.

When starting a musical journey, the first important work is developing habits that will serve you for as long as you choose your journey to last. This is not always self-evident nor the most expedient path to learn to play an instrument. There are many short-cuts at your disposal that can help you to play well enough to survive as a working musician but may leave you with one or more habits that can eventually become obstacles to your development. Also, as Syrus implies, the river gets more difficult to cross the further we travel from its source.

Think of any basic technique you were taught at the very beginning, for example, alternate finger plucking on bass. At the start you didn’t have any notion of a correct way to do it. You may have started with just your index finger and then added your middle finger occasionally when there was phrase too fast to play with just your index finger. As your proficiency increased, you may have found that your plucking technique was a limiting factor when it came to playing faster and more rhythmically challenging parts. After years of playing, you may find that you need to retrain both your mind and fingers to alternate correctly. Had you crossed the river at the source in the beginning, you might have lagged at the outset, but could be further ahead now.

Trust the process. If a teacher, mentor, or instructional book suggests a process for building technique and knowledge, and you think it’s valid, then trust it and follow it. It doesn’t guarantee success, but it has worked for others. Each of us is different. What may take you one week may take another person much more time. Conversely, what you find difficult, others may find easy. We are each physiologically and psychologically unique. That means that your path to get somewhere may be slightly different at some or many points during your journey. When you put your trust in the process, you can concentrate on a very small segment of the path and work on perfecting it knowing that it is a necessary step. Always looking at how much more remains in front of you or how much faster others may be traveling is usually counterproductive.

Bottom Line: Small incremental progress builds a wide and solid base.

An Eternity in Every Moment

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind.”
–Bob Marley

The only thing completely under our control is our thoughts. Bob Marley insinuates that our worse enemy is none other than ourselves. It is the mental slavery we willingly subject ourselves to that precludes us from experiencing reality. We need to free our mind of our preconceived notions and concepts. Concepts we don’t or can’t separate from ourselves because they are part of our hidden operating system.

Seneca advices us to immerse ourselves in the present to “gentle the passage of time’s precipitous flight.” Live now, drink more deeply of the present moment, get a taste of eternity in our mortal lives. Within each moment there is an eternity; there exists an eternity of moments. If you doubt it, consider that between zero and one there as many fractional numbers as there are natural numbers from 1 onwards. We dwell on the number of moments we are given and get to experience but rarely contemplate the depth of each experience.

It appears we may come to an age-old debate of quantity verse quality. Or is it that we prefer to ignore the present moment, to not focus on what is in front of us, relinquishing the possibility of slowing down and experiencing the immensity of the present moment? Each time our mind wanders from the present moment and focuses on past or the future, we rob ourselves of a small morsel of eternity. How often do we speak of someone that lived a relatively short life but somehow managed to experience so much more, do so much more? We say, “if only I could accomplish a fraction of what they accomplished in such a short time.” We may think they were not given enough time but look at what they did with the time they were given.

As musician’s we can mistake quantity for quality. We all know musicians that know a ton of songs but don’t play many of them particularly well. We also know musicians who dive into a genre and know a smaller number of songs and play most of them well. And then there is the last group of musicians that know a ton of songs and play most of them really well. What do we need to do get ourselves into that last, rarified group?

Study the groove and the feel of a song. It seems that there can be an endless number of ways to interpret note placement, duration, and articulation. When playing in an ensemble, you need to make real time decisions based on the feel and groove of the drummer and the other musicians. The doorway to experiencing the eternity in each moment exists in the specifics of the groove. This can become a heightened experience when other musicians on the stage are participating and acting on the subtleties of the groove. While the song may sound the same each repeat to the average listener, the subtle changes that propel the groove and song free our mind and slow the passage of time’s precipitous flight.

Bottom Line: Get deep.

Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” -Shunryo Suzuki

When we are learning a new skill, our minds are more open to new possibilities. As we travel the road towards becoming and expert, we tend to look at new information through the lens of what we have already know. We tend to value the knowledge and our sources more than new information.

Most people don’t want new information, they want validating information. Seek out information that you think is contrary to what you know and approach it as if you are new to the challenge of learning the skill. Create a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.

Ideas

“Ideas change the world only when they change our behavior.”
-Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus

I highlighted the above quote while reading the book Homo Deus (recommended btw). At first I thought the meaning was self-evident, but on a second reading it seems to delve into the human psyche and the root of what motivates us. We all have ideas; some are sublime, some are mundane, most are somewhere in between. The power comes from the understanding that ideas motivate and change the world, and also ideas that motivate and change our own worlds.

Some ideas, whether we agree with them or not, cause us to evaluate our current behavior, do some soul searching, and consider change as an option. But it’s the really big ideas that impact us, change our behavior and the world. From smart phones to YouTube to AirBnB to Uber, all these ideas have either directly or indirectly changed our behavior and in the process changed our world. While not all changes work out to be “the greatest good for the greatest number” it is a process that leads to progress. Apple only introduced the iPhone in 2007 and I’m sure many of us can’t imagine life without or before our smart phones.

Bottom Line: Time flies and our memories are short.

Goal vs Process

A goal is where you want to go; a process is how you get there. A goal remains something you want to make happen until you create a process to achieve it. The goal is the destination, the process is the map. Without a good map you may never arrive at your destination. If you have a goal without a process you have lots of company. Many people dream of becoming a rock star, an author, or a titan of Wall St., or, on a personal level, to get healthier, lose weight, exercise, or eat better. Many of us make goals but how many of us stick with it long enough to attain our goal?

First, you can state a goal or our desire to attain it – living the life of a rock star or eating healthier – but not conceptualize of the amount of work required to achieve it. Sometimes most of the work to achieve a lifestyle is hidden below the surface. You fail to see the hours of practice required to master an instrument or the effort it takes to eat healthier. Secondly, thinking of yourself as someone that will achieve your goal rather than the person you were before you decided to pursue your goal, can change your self-image. Think of yourself as a professional musician, not as a person learning to play a song or two, or a healthy person rather than a person exercising just to lose some weight. Once you make that change, you can then ask yourself, what would a pro musician do?

The process is essential. It becomes our map of how we get from A to B. If you don’t have experience putting together a map, then seek the help of a qualified person. Find a teacher or someone who has achieved what you want to achieve and start asking questions. Then break the process down in a logical progression of steps or tasks. You want to identify things you can do daily that will give you incremental progress towards your goal. Then make the tasks into habits you can fit into your schedule 4 or 5 times a week.

Creating habits helps to remove willpower from the equation and replaces it with something as automatic as brushing your teeth. Eating healthy and buying healthy foods to keep around the house can become a habit. Only having healthy food around the house removes the temptation of binging on unhealthy snacks. If you do have an unplanned snack, it will be healthy. Once you have built good habits based on your new way of seeing yourself, you have created a positive feedback loop. You now have all the incentive you need to continue your journey and the only willpower you used was to create the habit.

Goals are really important. Big picture goals motivate us, get us out of bed, and energize us. But as the years pass and we find ourselves no further along the path that we thought we’d be traveling we can become jaded. We feel our willpower waning. We can either assign our lifelong dream to the junk pile of our life or give it the fair chance that we never really gave it by creating a map. Start to formulate a plan, with action steps, and then build those action steps into habits. Soon you’ll be on the road to realizing your dream.

Bottom Line: Without a good map it’s difficult to arrive at your destination.

The Water Doesn’t Move

If you surf, you know the thrill of catching a wave. Even body surfing affords this exhilarating feeling. You learn to feel the pull of the wave, time your effort, kick, swim, and ride the crest to the shore. Something you may know but don’t think about is that the wave is pushing you, not the water. When waiting for a wave to catch, you remain more or less in the same spot. It’s the undertow and tide that’s moving the water, the water is just the medium that the wave is moving through.

A point on a bicycle wheel only moves at the same velocity as the bicycle when it is exactly in the 9 and 3 o’clock positions. When the point moves from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock, it travels faster than the velocity of the bicycle, when it moves from 3 to 9 o’clock, slower. When you pedal a bicycle at 25 kph, any point on the wheel is either traveling faster or slower more often than the speed you and the bicycle are traveling. The velocity of this point, if graphed, is a wave.

When the sun is photographed at the same time each day it creates a shape when the multiple images are laid on top of each other. The shape called an analemma. It is very similar to the numeral eight laid on a 45-degree angle, more akin to the shape that we use to represent the concept of infinity. The bottom loop is a bit smaller than the bottom one, but the shape is dependence on your position of latitude. When I saw this image, I made a connection with nature and the relationship of the orbit of the earth around the sun. While the earth and sun have a finite existence, the length of their existence is nearly incomprehensible to us. If we graph this shape and use the X axis as time, we again get a wave shape.

Myth has it that the gentle beating wings of a butterfly in Africa create the initial disturbance that eventually becomes a powerful hurricane in the Atlantic. How can such small things when looked at in greater detail either get lost in the big picture or be so integral to the whole? When floating on the surface of the ocean, we are bobbing on the peaks and troughs of waves; when observing a bicycle, it travels at a constant velocity while the velocity of a point on the wheel is constantly changing relative to the velocity of the bicycle which can be represented by a wave; the shape the sun traces in the sky as the earth orbits the sun can be represented graphically as a wave. How great is the improbably that the beating wings of a butterfly create a hurricane hundreds of miles in diameter, with winds in excess of 160kph?

Sound is a vibration. It is an acoustic wave that transmits through a medium such as gas, liquid, or solid. The air doesn’t move and the sound we create and call music or art is intangible. It is electromagnetic energy. Vibrations. Waves. Just like the current unifying theory of the universe, string theory, where the vibrations of the strings determine the state of the universe.

We are the water; the music we create is a wave that washes over us. We are the bicycle; our velocity is constant, the wheel’s always changing. We are the earth; the sun’s orbit traces its path in the sky. A butterfly beats its wings; a hurricane blows in faraway land.

Bottom Line: Catch the wave, surf the groove to the shore.

A Better Alternative

The stigma of changing your mind is that it implies weakness. I’d argue that changing one’s mind when faced with new facts and better information is courageous. Rather than ignoring and rejecting out of hand, acknowledging and considering new facts shows strength. On our path to a greater understanding of music on our chosen instrument, it’s our responsibility to consider new information and incorporate it into our understanding. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “I seek the truth, by which no one has ever been harmed. The one who is harmed is the one who abides in deceit and ignorance.”

It took a while, but eventually I came to understand the concept. I changed my mind. Did I feel regret for my past beliefs? No, I just moved on knowing that now I understood a concept that was closer to the truth, closer to reality. It is human’s ability to adapt that has made us the most dominant species on the planet. To adapt necessarily implies an ability and willingness to change especially when presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If we lacked the ability to adapt and change then we would not be able to incorporate new and better information into our world view.

Think of the alternative. Your instructor teaches you a new concept, you struggle to understand it, but eventually you do get it. You start to hear in other people’s playing the use of this concept. A door of understanding and new perception has been opened. You try to incorporate this concept into your playing but struggle to do so in a musical way. Your instructor suggests that you need to spend more time in the shed, perhaps many hours that could stretch into a year of work. Do you abandon your new understanding and go back to your old ways, or do you persevere and double your efforts to understand the truth? The only person you risk harming with your deceit and ignorance is yourself.

Do you have the desire and motivation to become a better musician? Are you open to new information and insights about how you become a better musician? You don’t necessarily need a thick skin, just a willingness to be honest and open with yourself; question the “facts” that got you to where you are; understand that the way to advance on your path is to search out the nuggets of wisdom from the musicians that traveled this way before you.

Bottom Line: Do you have strength and resolve to actively challenge your beliefs?