Billy Cobham’s lesson at Drumeo

Yesterday I watched Billy Cobham’s lesson about the art of the rhythm section. I knew him only by name and I remember having bought drumsticks designed by him. I have to confess I was unsure if I would like the lesson, as he is so famous, and I am often disappointed by how famous musicians lose connection with their own creative source, with fellow musicians and with the audience.

This is not the case of Billy Cobham: I found him so open, so genuinely interested in preparing a good atmosphere for the musicians he plays with, conscious of the force and responsibility of the drums section; he compared playing in a group to a friendly conversation; he underlined the ability to keep an internal metronome and play only the notes that are really needed. He then played two pieces and an amazing solo. It was almost possible to follow his thoughts, and feel his joy in making music. See and listen yourself!

I am relieved that such a gentle personality is one of the leading voices in drumming. I am so afraid that the music scene will end being dominated by other forces than the human aspiration to get together and have real fun – people like Billy and many others like him, are my hope. Last but not least, thanks to Drumeo for sharing these amazing lessons for free!


On leadership mindset

Love Bite -- by Chad Hanson

Lately I collected many hints on how a good leader should be: at my kindergarten, at riding lessons and by music rehearsals. At the same time I thought about how it takes to be a good team member.

In the past I had my strong opinions on some topics and would not accept any other, even from people who expected me to conform. I used to fight back, first with explicit force, then more softly but still very firmly. I was not especially good at leading because I was not so good at presenting my ideas and getting feedback from others, on any level. I was sometimes a difficult musician in my orchestra: the more I was pushed to play in a way I didn’t like, the more unmanageable I became.

Since then I understood many signs, or maybe, I got older and I don’t cling that desperately to my opinions anymore. It was an interesting lesson with the horse I ride: I have to communicate clearly and show a calm, focused mind, in order to be accepted as leader by an animal that is many times bigger, heavier, faster than me. I can occasionally bluff and play calm, even if I am not, as it is usually a safe thing to do – opposed to be scared by default, scare the horse and create an actual dangerous situation.

It is almost the same with children. They have marked personalities and clear ideas on what they want, but also rely on adults for guidance and exploration of the unknown world. When I feel that I am teaching something new to them, I am like a mountain guide, walking in front, showing where I put my feet, leaving the freedom to walk in another path when I consider it safe too; I check often with them to see if the way is manageable for them, if they are tired, happy, scared,curious. I learned in these last months how to pay attention to small signs that help me understand how another person feels, even if his/her words say otherwise. It happened too often that people answered “No thanks, how nice of you that you offer help, but I don’t need it now” and I saw on their faces that they needed that help so badly. Then it’s another diplomatic game to play, how to help them without patronisation.

And on this fine tuning, I exercise my leadership skills and my team member skills, usually by trial and error in real world situations. Sometimes I manage to make my tests with people who have much to teach me on this field: it is a real enjoyment to know that I can practice with the confidence that I am in a playpen, in a sandbox where I don’t have to worry that I could hurt somebody in order to learn my lessons.

On obedience, on teaching

I was very inspired by K’s blog post about teaching and understanding other living beings (people and animals that people find similar enough to them to be able to establish communication).

I should quote the whole post; except a few references to her own life, all her words could have been written by me as well. I am astonished at how our minds wander in the same landscapes, along several years now; I find her thoughts written almost at the same time when they surface in my mind.

I wish to append another line of thought to her reflections. Now that I am fine with not judging, with a gentler way of helping others find their way, when should I do that? I am very often confronted with clashes of ideas between me and my current pupil(s). One clever “trick” is to offer an apparent choice. For example I a young child to walk in my same direction, and he shows that he wants to go another way. Then I can offer the choice to go in hand with me or walk alone – in both cases, in the direction I have chosen.

This solution avoids conflict and still gives the child the possibility to make a choice. Still, not the one he initially wanted, the choice of direction. I am sometimes myself (yet) too unsure myself, and I am not able to drop the child’s idea in favour of mine. Maybe is a matter of experience and time, but I don’t want to become a guide that is too sure of his own ideas, and drops others’ ideas by default. I wish to keep doubt about my judgments for a little longer.

Of course it very much depends on how crucial are these choices. If I am reasonably sure that the child is leading a happy and fulfilled life, and at one moment of the day just wishes to play a little longer, sleep some more, scream and sing aloud, I don’t feel too guilty if I limit his liberty for a moment with my decision (the more, when there is a small life lesson attached). But I want to keep an eye always open for the cases when a disobedience is a sign of something deeper, that requires attention and not simply correction.

There is something of that kind also in my orchestra, where the conductor has (always had?) the ability to let us comment on a piece and tell him how we want it to sound like. This doesn’t diminish the respect we have for his opinion, quite the contrary.


On playing at concerts, part 2

 @ Bergamo, 83. Adunata Alpina

Last riding lesson was interesting, once more, as a mirror and sandbox for how I feel when playing music. In a former post I wrote about how I came to enjoy concerts less and less, and now I feel I made one small step in a direction I like.

Martina was letting me focus on my posture while Lozano walked slowly in the arena. I am getting better at following Lozano’s movements and interfere as less as possible with his rhythm. Martina and me discussed about how to sit comfortably at the trot. She explained to me that the horse has a marked bouncing movement of the back, that the rider should not block with his/her own body tension. In other words, if the rider sits with contracted legs and torso, the horse’s movement will make him/her bounce and fall over, and if not, will prevent the horse from moving correctly (the horse would then slow down or stop, as it interprets that stiffness as a request to slow down). This is fairly obvious for anyone who rode a horse at trot, or was astride any animal or vehicle which moved with a lot of energy.

The interesting part of the explanation came when considering other approaches to the trot. One could try to anticipate the horse’s movement, with the goal to make the same displacements. This is very tricky, because the horse rarely makes perfectly timed strides, and without stirrups it is especially difficult to create your own movement. Another idea is to follow the horse’s movement, with a relaxed body, with the legs alongside the horses’s flanks (not so relaxed that they bounce, but as much relaxed as possible). I tried it and I really felt my body’s movements lagging behind the horse’s, the horse almost shifting away from underneath me at each step; only gravity and friction were keeping me astride. (I had my hands on the handles of the vaulting surcingle for safety, not for actively holding myself on the horse.) Martina noticed my change in posture and we talked about it in detail. I managed to better understand how the rider follows the movement of the horse, while still being able to guide the horse – but with cues and intention, not with his/her own movements.

I brought to her a comparison with music, and drumming in particular. A very similar explanation has been given by Mark Kelso for Drumeo, in a longer lesson about playing with the metronome. He shows how to play exactly with the metronome, slightly ahead or slightly behind it (laying back):

The point Mark makes is that you should be aware of these three ways of playing, and you should be able to consciously switch between them. After this lesson, I could not tie myself to an exercise that does not help me strengthening my awareness, in any field. I had recognised the moments when I could play music “laying back”, but could not always recreate the conditions, or decide how to play with other musicians. That disappointed me very much, it made me feel powerless and clueless. Now that I got a rational explanation, that I can test at will, I am not fighting so eagerly anymore for perfect harmony at rehearsals or concerts – I know it is a fragile mixture and that it’s not necessarily my own fault if it does not happen.

I further talked with Martina about Feldenkrais riding practice in relation to competitive riding, and Feldenkrais-like music practice and meta-exercises in relation to concerts. We agreed that when the show is on, deep feelings are not so important anymore; they have been the focus of practice, and on stage rules another set of values. Of course people notice when there are flow and deep connections on stage; but it is usually not as important as other rules.

Finally I am OK with doing a half-hearted concert – or better, I know why I am not there with my full swing; instead of raging and biting, or worse, abandon the stage, I have seen a path that will take me to a higher awareness and the accompanying technical ability.

I am thankful to my guides, who picked up the way I learn, give me food for thought and appropriate learning supports; they are confident I can go forward on my own legs, they smile when I conquer a new height.

On movement and mind

Last Friday I attended two lessons, one at a local riding school, the other as usual at my orchestra’s rehearsal theatre.

The first lesson was my first Feldenkrais and riding lesson, with Martina Schumacher and one of her horses, Lozano. The lesson focused on the mind’s image of the body. According to usage and perceived importance, each limb and part of the body have a more or less detailed image in our mind. That is not inherently bad, but if the consequence is the uneven usage of force, or unbalance, then it makes sense to examine how the body is mapped in our mind, notice which parts could deserve more attention, and what can be done to to reach a better balance and self-awareness.

Martina guided Lozano around the arena with me in the saddle, while she guided my focus on the perception of various parts of my body, my balance, my overall feeling. Martina could not see me, as she was leading the horse; but could know if I experienced tension by noticing how Lozano increased his pace. There was a quiet and fluid understanding between the three of us, on different channels: me and Martina only speaking, Martina and Lozano by their long-time osmosis, me and Lozano by our movements. I was amazed at how Lozano decoded the smallest changements in my posture and tension, and manifested them clearly by walking faster or by relaxing his gait and body. That mirroring is hard to find among humans and other animals, as far as I know, so I am grateful that this horse gave me such clear feedback.

At the end of the lesson, Martina brought Lozano in the centre of the arena and we shortly talked about how I felt during the ride. In the meanwhile, Lozano bent his neck and touched my left foot with his nose. Maybe he wanted to draw my attention to my left side?

I dismounted and talked a bit more with Martina. I am amazed at the fact that I didn’t feel the need to address my unbalance and unevenness until, well, today. How did I survive for thirty years, doing apparently quite well? Our body is amazingly resilient.

With all this in mind, I came back home for a while and prepared my gear for my drum lesson. Not surprisingly, I am taking drum lessons (again, after ten years) with a special focus on movements and body awareness, not on technical achievements anymore (even if the distinction is fuzzy, for instruments such as drums where movement is key). I take fun and pride in mastering simple exercises that require special attention to a movement, a set of movements, coordination, control; playing loud or softly, playing exactly what I have in mind, in terms of timing and sound. I have the privilege to have a terrific teacher, who spots all little bends, tensions, hesitations; honest, gentle and helpful as a doctor.

I felt that that day I had one single long lesson, and I am eager to make progress further along these two converging paths.

On silence

I recently noticed that I start preferring moments of silent interaction instead of using words to explain my feelings (OK, this post excluded!).

Now I fully appreciate how people can share their feelings without words and sometimes even without gestures. Keeping each other in eyesight, or even sitting next to each other without eye contact. For a very verbalising person like me, it’s a big achievement, even a rediscovery of the time I was so young that I didn’t know any verbal language. I take it as a part of my work on observation step that comes before drawing. I feel I am getting the idea of how it is to be an animal – wordless, but not heartless. I come to appreciate when I share some time with close friends and we don’t feel the need to talk. I have fun stripping off the dialogues of some scenes of my daily interactions and get the rest (the rest! really?) of communication, sometimes in agreement with the words, sometimes not.

This picture comes from this post, from June’s blog “Chloe, the pony who wouldn’t”. I have enjoyed reading many of her accurate observations of her horses, interacting with each other and with people.

I chose to represent the content of this post with this particular picture, as I am reading a book about systemic pedagogy supported by horses (in German: Pferdegestützte systemische Pädagogik) from Imke Urmoneit (that book will get a dedicated post). She explains how horses communicate mostly with body language, something that human adults forget or consider less important that the verbal language. Horses answer to your body language, that is expression of sincere intentions, as opposed to verbal language: they can therefore make you notice an unconscious behaviour and let you address it, to help you becoming a more aware and balanced person. An example: while riding, you would ask the horse for more speed with a conscious signal, but unconsciously you are afraid of it. The horse will get both clues and will give precedence to the unconscious one, that makes itself clear with an increase of muscle tension. The trainer should help you spot this contradiction and suggest ways to understand and process your fear. You could do that yourself, too; but it’s a bit like getting yourself under surgery. Not impossible, but particularly challenging.

I even had the idea to suggest music lessons without extra words (if possible, none at all). I already experienced that it’s possible to play music with people I can’t talk with, because we have no common human language: verbal communication only helps when there is a technical quirk to solve quickly. When verbal language is available, it usually takes the lion’s share, and I sense that the actual feeling of playing together suffers from that, as it gets reduced to a technical challenge.

My goal is to use words with as much care as possible, so that they actually support my non-verbal communication instead of replacing it; in parallel, I aim to become more attentive to non-verbal communication of others.

On being helpful to children

As today I have been guest in a kindergarten classroom, I had a lot of time to observe children, busy with so many things that only a child can think of. So full of energy, so willing, so curious, so cheerful. So random and still so focused; so unfinished by grown-up standards, but so crystal clear in their intentions and expressions.

Why should that be a limited time of human life? How to keep the spirit of childhood alive, all life long, together with adult capabilities? This is for me an open question, but luckily I have live examples to study and follow (childhood as a state of mind? – stay tuned for another post…).

I have been thinking at what kind of help adults can give to children, to support their growth. I identified three big cornerstones: acceptance, strength and knowledge. I assume that there can be more, but I cannot think of less than these three.

First, I feel that I have to accept the child as it is, if I want to be helpful to him/her. Any shadow in this acceptance means that I would try to correct something that I consider wrong – and this will be harmful. I don’t hide that it’s very difficult. It’s so ingrained in us, that teaching means correcting. A good pupil is an obedient, predictable pupil, right? But there are treasures hidden behind the “good pupil” mask. Only by allowing the child to be spontaneous (i.e. noisy! bold! disobedient!) I can really know him/her and find ways to give support. Authority and understanding don’t share the same boundaries. From an authoritarian point of view, I would allow disobedience; but I could also be giving space to the child, because my goal is to understand him/her better. I am the only one to know if I am allowing disobedience because of my personal failure in making me respected.

Then comes strength. I have to be strong, to effectively support the child when he is afraid or unsure; my inner child cannot be afraid or unsure of the same things as the child I am in care of. The child will invariably spot it and will not trust him/herself in facing the difficulty alone. Wouldn’t you do the same, if a guide in a foreign country showed fear in entering a particular place?

Last but not really least, comes knowledge. I have to be capable in the tasks I show to the child, so that I know how much I have to rectify when the child tries to do them. With increasing experience, one leaves more and more space to trials and errors by the learner itself, because one trusts that he/she will find a good solution on his/her own – or to say, a good solution will become self-evident.

Thank you children for humbling me, cheerfully; thank you, children-adults, for showing me the way.