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You know how when you get really into something and you feel that it can solve every problem that exists? In other words, I have found a hammer and everything looks like a nail.

I was getting more intently into meditation and discovered that my inflexibility was limiting my practice so I bought a video by Kit Laughlin on how to stretch for meditation. The meditation fell by the wayside but I got more into stretching, following along with various videos by Kit. Then for a forgotten reason I watched an interview with Kit and only intending to watch a few minutes ended up watching over an hour of it. Which brings me to the hammer.

Kit mentioned fairly early on about how soft his muscles were despite being strong and this was due to his stretching as well as his relaxation meditations. He talked about his work aiming to bring his students to a more cat-like state. Very relaxed most of the time until the exact moment you need the strength then back to being totally relaxed. This sucked me right in as it corresponds with a lot of what I understand about the Feldenkrais method. To me, having an unneeded tension is stupid. It does nothing to help. It’s similar to how when my colleague was complaining about a set of stairs day after day when we would always have to climb those stairs for the job anyway. The complaining doesn’t make it easier but in fact makes it harder. Likewise unneeded tension is a waste of energy and chronic tension often results in RSI* and a corresponding psychological tension. A good example of useless tension is when people frown and stop breathing when concentrating. Absolutely useless unless the task is to frown and to stop breathing.

I’ve been doing Kit’s lying meditations daily for a couple of weeks now and they are just great. In one of them Kit asks to savour the delicious flavour of the sighs at the beginning of the meditation and often at the end of the meditation the flavour of the state of deep relaxation is delcious. The feeling of a relaxed and liberated breath in a sea of fluffy clouds is wonderous.

The meditations have been beneficial in the rest of my life too. I notice I have developed a habitual shoulder rising when walking outside, no doubt to look bigger/imposing/masculine/handsome. I notice this quite quickly now and I am able to relax my shoulders into a chilled, neutral walk. This is who I am and I walk like this, no need to cover it with armour.

I still get angry and frustrated from time to time at work but the instruction to “breathe and relax” and occasionally using sighs like the beginning of the meditations helps mitigate the anger and physiological response.

I’ve also been using the principles of the relaxation techniques along with Feldenkrais principles in my physical job. When carrying a load of stuff I notice if there are any unnecessary tensions and ask myself “is it possible to relax a bit in this situation?” These help to reduce the effort I use and are attempts to achieve equanimity in a difficult situation. One of the major things I learned from a Feldenkrais singing book is “realising intent without effort,” and the questions above are an invitation to not try so hard. I certainly need a great deal of strength in my job but each repetition is an opportunity to reduce the amount of effort I need in order to become more and more efficient so as to reduce injury and make the work easier to do. Breathing freely is a major part of this and if you can breath freely whilst doing something difficult that’s already half the job.

All this stuff of course applies to my improvised theatre classes. A lot of what we do to warm up (body scan, letting the floor support you, breathing into tension) is designed to reduce physical tension and enable us to deal with anxiety/nervousness/self-consciousness more skillfully when it appears.

I haven’t quite been able to apply it as effectively to my singing practice mostly because I’m not learned enough to distinguish the needed tensions versus the unneeded ones. Some of the tensions are obvious like the frowning and shoulder raising, but I believe my senstivity isn’t quite there in terms of in and around the throat area.

I wonder what other areas I can apply this too…

*Repetitive Strain Injury. Unfortunately prevalent amongst musicians. I have had it in the past from playing the piano and later from smartphone use.

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The late Kozuki Roshi was entertaining two American monks at tea when he casually asked, “And what do you gentlemen know about Zen?”
One of the monks flung his closed fan straight at the master’s face. All in the same instant the master inclined his head slightly to one side, the fan shot straight through the paper shoji behind him, and he burst into a ripple of laughter.

 

When the Governor of Lang asked Yao-shan, “What is the Tao?” the master pointed upwards to the sky and downwards to a water jug beside him. Asked for an explanation, he replied: “A cloud in the sky and water in the jug.”

Reading about Zen Buddhism recently, here’s a few stories I like.

CASE 40. KICKING THE DRINKING WATER JAR

During his stay under Master Hyakujo, Isan was a cooking monk. As Master Hyakujo wished to send a monk to found the new monastery called the Great Mount I, Master Hyakujo told the chief monk and all other monks that he would choose the one who would demonstrate himself as the best among them. Then Master Hyakujo brought out a drinking water jar, put it down and said, “You cannot call it a water jar. Then, what will you call it?”

The chief monk said, “One cannot call it a wooden stick.”

Then, when Master Hyakujo turned to Isan, Isan kicked the jar and walked away. Master Hyakujo laughed and said, “The chief monk lost it to Isan.” He made Isan the founder of the Great I-san Monastery.

 

Fa-yen asked the monk Hsüan-tzu why he had never asked him any questions about Zen. The monk explained that he had already attained his understanding from another master. Pressed by Fa-yen for an explanation, the monk said that when he had asked his teacher, “What is the Buddha?” he had received the answer, “Ping ting T’ung-tzu comes for fire!”
“A good answer!” said Fa-yen. “But I’m sure you don’t understand it.”
“Ping-ting,” explained the monk, “is the god of fire. For him to be seeking for fire is like myself, seeking the Buddha. I’m the Buddha already, and no asking is needed.”
“Just as I thought!” laughed Fa-yen. “You didn’t get it.”
The monk was so offended that he left the monastery, but later repented of himself and returned, humbly requesting instruction.
“You ask me,” said Fa-yen.
“What is the Buddha?” inquired the monk.
“Ping-ting T’ung-tzu comes for fire!”

 

A monk asked Ts’ui-wei, “For what reason did the First Patriarch come from the West?”
Ts’ui-wei answered, “Pass me that chin-rest.”
As soon as the monk passed it, Ts’ui-wei hit him with it.

Having gotten back from a pleasant week in Amsterdam I’m back into the swing of things at home. The usual videogames, work, pornography, masturbation, writer’s block, impro, eating, and the occasional walk to the park. I’m also getting back into my current obsession of vocal technique.

This time around I’ve been focusing more on cord closure when I haven’t been coughing due to allergies or minor illness. Given that muscles in and around the larynx are muscles, they can be strengthened. I’m mainly using the vowel EE, as per Jack Livgni’s suggestion, but also using EH and creating and experimenting with various exercises between the two vowels. I’m also experimenting the degree of glottalness or squeeze of these vowels, the continuum being from air to breathy to balanced to pressed to choking. I’m also using crying and hearty laughter to stimulate the vocal cords to approximate firmly. I’m leaning towards the pressed/squeezed side of the continuum which of course leads to tension and fatigue. They are muscles after all and overworking them will make them tired. This is of course dangerous to do without supervision, so I’m proceeding carefully. You encounter a lot in various vocal methods about relaxation and air flow but this is much the opposite of that. But without strong vocal cord approximation, the strength will not be there in the larynx to resist the air pressure from the breathing apparatus to create a strong, solid and stable tone.

I’m also looking into to making the ribcage expansion a habitual part of my breathing. My habitual breath is a low one but the ribcage hardly expands. As per the suggestion of both Livgni, Salvatore Fischella, and observation of Jussi Bjorling, I need to breathe higher. This will take time as every breath in this new way will appear high.

Then of course I have to integrate this within the framework of what I’m attempting to realise with my voice. Freer, upper range, flexibility, easy transition between chest and head voice so it appears as one voice rather than two.

Songwriting block hasn’t been solved yet. The current thinking is to write a bunch of lyrics first, then frame the music around that. Writing of the music first appears way too wishy washy and is susceptible to mental fatigue of about a half hour. Half hour of aimless noodling does nothing to create any material. The reason for songwriting is to have stuff to show people online and material for open mics.

I’m also occasionally exploring a new method I made up that probably exists somewhere else. It’s storyboarding but applied to songwriting. It goes like this: I have something I want to express. What are those things? How can this be musically represented? Melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, timbrally. What structure would suit this? What instruments?

The aim of this storyboarding is so that when I go to the instrument to create the music stuff, I won’t be as mentally fatigued because I’m no longer noodling hoping for something to appear but rather now I’m problem solving. I have specific problems and I can make attempts to solve them now I have a general idea of which way to go. For instance, there’s a song that’s been hanging around for years but it’s been difficult to add extra sections for variety. The reason why it’s been difficult is because the fragment I do have has this static quality to it that is gorgeous and adding my usual changes disturbs the stasis. So now the problem has been defined more clearly – how do I add sections whilst maintaining this stasis? Is it possible?

Man, I’ve been pretty horny these days. Haven’t decided to do anything about it yet. You may hear about it, probably in vague terms (gentlemen don’t kiss and tell), if I am successful. If unsuccessful you’ll get all the gory details.

On Saturday I went to my usual London Open Choir. Unfortunately there were only the three of us that day, and it can be difficult to do improvised songs with only three people. Our facilitator and friend Marta decided to give the two of us a vocal technique lesson. I’m wary of any vocal technique stuff from anyone because there is a tremendous amount of bullshit and misinformation, and it’s more akin to shamanism and alchemy than any sort of rigorously tested field. What also doesn’t help is that the bullshit stuff can work because the voice responds well to imagery, metaphor and sensation. You can say my cup was full.

We worked on the ribcage. The expansion of it and maintaining its buoyancy when vocalising. I must say I was humbled. Apart from the Feldenkrais-esque loosening of my shoulders every morning, I haven’t done much work on my breathing, mainly just allowing the vibration and the quality of the vibration to regulate the breath pressure. I expanded little in my regular breathing and made little conscious effort to maintain the ribcage expansion. The demonstrations by Marta, who had a long breath and non-collapsing ribcage, showed her level of training in this area and what I lacked in this area. In hindsight, after reading this David Jones article, I did inhale too much, but it was necessary and helpful in order to feel the ribcage expansion.

The reason why I wasn’t closed-minded to this was that it corresponded with what David Jones said (there’s an exercise in that article about panting without the ribcage moving) and what my old voice teacher Michael Mayer said at some point, either in his articles or in my lessons. Also it matches up well with the Feldenkrais method in that we don’t only want one way of breathing, but a choice between several ways. When a piece of vocal technique connects with these fonts of knowledge, my brain goes, “Okay, this isn’t bullshit. Relax.”

As I write this today my intercostal muscles feel the burn. There’s two sets of them, one set elevates and expands the ribcage (external), the other does the opposite (internal). Thus when maintaining buoyancy, the external set is going to feel that buuurrrrn.

Other vocal technique stuff:

I’ve kind of stopped working on the witch cackle unintentionally because I’m like that dog in Up and I found a squirrel. I’m now exploring maintaining the opening of the nasal passages, pre-yawn feeling and vacuuming air through the eyes, and discovered this new, pingy resonance that I’m trying on notes low and high. However, this pingy resonance does sound like the witch cackle sometimes so it feels like I’m on the right track. The good thing about this resonance, when I do it a particular way, I feel I can lean in on the head voice and add more intensity for a louder tone. It’s easier to add intensity on a higher head voice tone e.g. F4 but harder on a lower one e.g D4. But with this resonance exploration, I’ve been able to get a more intense tone on the lower notes where I previously I could only do it in a more breathy way on an “eee” vowel.

Specifically one aspect of singing.

Before we get to that I would like to update you on the songwriting process. It’s generally going shite. Positives: I’m creating stuff. Negatives: None of it is getting completed are most of it isn’t really songs. I’d defined the problem and listed possible solutions but now everything’s the same again and feels like a struggle. Ugh.

Anyway, singing. As I mentioned previous post, I’d been playing around with the head voice chest voice alternation exercise. I’ve also been exploring making the notes from middle C upwards louder and then something happened with my voice that lead to my current obsession. A cascade of lightbulb moments that lead to The Witch’s Cackle.

My voice teacher from years ago (I only took like eleven lessons with him) made a video describing the difference between head voice and falsetto and it has a couple of short examples of the cackle but not described as such in the video. Then my intuition told me that there was stuff I needed to look in my old notebook as my recordings of those voice lessons were relevant. The notebook had notes on up to lesson 8 so I started there. Boom.

10:00 Strengthening head voice. Pure – Witch – Reinforced

My voice teacher goes into the process of strengthening the head voice and the three stages of it with examples for each. I’ve been able to do the Pure stage for years now, and use variations of it in choir, laughing and just general improvising with the voice. I never did manage to get to the Witch cackle. The co-ordination was out of reach. I’d imitate the examples but it sounded nowhere near.

Now I’m back making many many attempts at attaining the cackle. These past few days have had me trying for hours trying different ways and refining those ways. Interestingly I haven’t lost my voice at any point, it just gets tired and my normal speaking voice gets croaky. From past experience my voice is in bad shape when just air comes out when attempting head voice. During these attempts, tidbits of vocal knowledge learned long ago resurface. I remember reading a tenor blog long ago and that the high range was achieved by a balance of the TA and CT muscles. I can’t remember what TA stands for and I can’t remember how to spell the CT muscles but basically TA is responsible for chest voice and CT for head voice and you can adjust the balance between the two. I reasoned my inability to acquire the Witch Cackle was because the Pure head voice was too CT dominant and needed more TA participation so I created an exercise alternating between low chest voice, around E2/F2, and head voice, around E4/F4, so that I would attempt to incorporate the feeling I felt in the low chest in the head voice. I’ve no idea if this exercise is any good or if the reasoning is correct. It seems like it but when you don’t have a teacher and you potter around in the dark that’s what you get.

The results? I appear to be succeeding. It’s not quite cackly but there’s definitely more body in the tone and volume. It’s not quite co-ordinated so I get things like two notes at the same time and squeezing and forcing too much. I can only do it on one vowel so I’ll need to be able to do all the vowels in this co-ordination.

Technicalities aside, why do I want to learn to do this? Part of getting better at something is the increased potential of what you can do, an increased freedom. With my current voice with its large dichotomy between chest voice and head voice, freedom is lacking. It’s also something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I can’t think of any other reasons than just that strong feeling of desire. There’s this video of James Morrison singing his song “You Make It Real” I come back to again and again as a lovely example of this mixed voice. He has a much higher voice than mine but you’ll hear in the video there isn’t much perceptible difference between the low range and high range. That’s what I want with my voice.

Addendum: here’s a nice article describing TA and CT muscles.

These days I’ve been delving into the whole music thing again. Stuff I should’ve and could’ve learned ages ago but for some reason was unable to solve back then. The newfound enthusiasm, slowly waning now, came from overcoming my envy of the young fella Jacob Collier and actually listening to his music with an open mind. Stunningly virtuosic and accomplished but obviously my favourite songs from his albums are the understated, slower songs, “Hideaway” and “In the Real Early Morning.” I fell down the rabbit hole of Collier related things on Youtube and found this fascinating, rushed music theory discussion which gave me food for thought. At around the same time I watched this convuluted Rick Beato video about chromatic mediants and their use in film music which led to a video by 12Tone about Neo-Riemannian theory and 12Tone’s videos led me to David E Farrell’s music theory videos that lucidly taught me various concepts about modulation that I’ve never learned despite having a music degree.

On my commutes during the week or so exploring this I was re-listening to various talks by Kenny Werner and his “tank” metaphor or what Jacob Collier would call toolbox. The tank metaphor being you have three different tanks of stuff you can draw upon for improvising, and by extension composing, of Rhythm, Harmony and Melody. The idea being that you practise, learn and imbibe bits in each category until they spontaneously appear in your playing. In psychological terms of the Four Stages of Competence it would mean reaching the stage of Unconscious Competence for everything you learn, or Mastery. Total Mastery would be akin to the flow state, being in the zone where the task is being accomplished without any feeling of control, effort or forcing. In the cases when you notice you aren’t consciously controlling what you are doing you tend to panic and feel like you have to take control again and mess it up. It’s something that was discussed in my Feldenkrais singing book, Singing with Your Whole Self, and if memory serves, the whole journey of Zen in the Art of Archery. It’s one of the things we do in the Imprology classes, this lack of try harding or letting go, and Remy (Imprology teacher) often gives us exercises to multitask in order to distract and overwhelm the conscious mind so we get something akin to just action without the actor. There’s an interview with Remy where he tells the Zen Koan:

A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”

The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”

The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”

Alan Watts talks about this where it’s an artefact of our language that we have nouns (things) and verbs (actions) but it’s entirely possible to have a language without nouns and have it be more accurate to reality. My cells have completely changed from ten years ago but I am still me because the pattern of me, the doing of me, remains the same much like the flame of a candle remains the same but is not the same.

Having learned new music theory bits from Youtube and Wikipedia my piano improvisations, once so boring I gave up playing for months, have gained a bit of freedom. I’m still bored at times (“not this fucking chord progression again”) but the situation has improved due to an increased repertoire in the Harmony tank.

Also from Jacob Collier he has a masterclass where he talks about reducing the disparity between head and chest voice by singing the same note alternating between the voices. He also says you should never strain, which is a very Feldenkrais thing. I’ve been playing around with alternating chest and head voice, ascending in semi-tones, sometimes quarter-tones, very conscious to use as little effort as possible especially as I ascend in pitch and sing in chest voice. Also in general reducing any strain in general and flipping into head voice for the higher notes lower than I previously would in order to undo the habits of straining, forcing and trying harder. My previous experience doing other Feldenkrais exercises informs the singing practise, as in Feldenkrais lessons you do variations of repetitions, the variations being easier, smoother, lighter, smaller range of motion and staying very much within one’s comfort zone. Improvements with the voice seem to be slow and take time, especially since I’m not taking lessons, but I believe the process of removing the strain, however little, to be a positive one. Also because I’m doing this myself, I don’t have anyone to assess if I’m straining without noticing it or if the tension I feel is the correct amount of tension. In any case it will be a long process of calibration, playing the game of hot and cold in the context of singing.

As a result of all this musical learning and exploration I’m desperate to write music again and use the various tools I have acquired to enrich the compositional experience. But I’ve come up against a wall. Very difficult to write anything. I also know that like farting, forcing it will be shit. What’s a guy to do? Once again I come up against old problems and habits that plague me before in the creation of music. But I’ve forgotten what they were so once again some amateur psychoanalysis may help. Probably some sort of perfectionism involved, needing it to be good, substantial, not corny or boring, and goodness knows what else. There’s a hefty amount of psychological traffic and things aren’t flowing in the North or South Circular as they could do. I think I have to hoodwink and overwhelm my conscious mind like in Imprology classes but in this case I have to do it myself. One of the things I have unintentionally hoodwinked myself was doing multitrack acappella and something about the process was very easy and fun, despite the recordings being noisy and out of tune. I also wrote a little something on the piano earlier on but my brain is saying it doesn’t count. I imagine one of the solutions to this problem would be to change my environment so that it is conducive to composition and songwriting. There’s also a tonne of roadworks in lyric writing village and words come very very slowly and difficultilly.

That’s it for now. I know I should edit this and excise huge portions of this for others to read but at the same time I’ve run out of energy and if I wait until I have energy to edit this will never get published, much like how the songwriting and composition is going.

Too doo loo, Live Long and Prosper.

Sai