An Experiment with Magical Musical Fishpond Storytelling

It was 9:30 AM on Friday, February 16th, 2019 as I arranged items on the conference room table at the Arlington MA Senior Center. I thought with excitement that I was finally getting a chance to try “magical musical fishpond story telling.” Although children are naturals at making up stories together, many adults enjoy that as well with elders being the keepers of wisdom stories in many cultures such as this example.

In the center of the table was a tiny incense-holder box (kogo in Japanese). This rather grumpy looking badger box represented the central character of the story we were to create. Although our Mr. Badger was gruff on the outside, all of us who would play his animal friends knew that he was actually quite caring.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As we did for all our sessions, we used the Insight Dialogue guidelinespause into awareness, relax and accept what cannot be relaxed with compassion, open to mutual awareness and really seeing each other, attune to emergence to present thoughts and feelings as they arise and fade, listen deeply releasing thoughts about what to say next, and speak the truth about what is arising in the moment. I have found that pausing to access a place of deep stillness is very useful when accessing creative fictional truth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After drinking the tea while acknowledging all that went into it, we pushed the tea things to the center of the table so we could pass the tongue drum for our story telling. Each of us would offer our contribution and then tap the drum for emphasis before passing the drum on to the next person.

While Mr. Badger was away, a flood had swept everything from his cozy abode. Each of us as his animal friends was to bring an object to create a nice place for Mr. Badger to return to as an act of compassion.

First, we introduced our animals and what they each brought:

-Kathy the Kangaroo brought two Persian carpets.
-Daun the Deer brought two comfortable pillows.
-Alan the Dachshund brought a flag sign on a pole.
-Maggie the Robin sang and constructed a nest.
-Aurora the Golden Snake brought a quilt.
-Barbara the Bunny brought carrots, brown rice and a rice cooker.
-Meg the Monkey brought a platform bed.
-Maya the Panda brought leaves and bamboo.
-Tracy the Love Bird brought smudge sticks.

Then we went around the table again explaining how Mr. Badger had used our gifts in unexpected ways:

-The carpets were used to sop up mud at Mr. Badger’s entrance.
-The pillows were emptied of feathers so Mr. Badger could play with them.
-The flag pole was stuck in the ground to be used as a coatrack.
-The nest had a blue egg which Mr. Badger gently sat on until it hatched.
-The lovely quilt went on the table but it might become a sail for his boat.
-The rice cooker was used to heat water to clean up his place.
-The platform bed was used for sleeping (not where badgers normally sleep).
-The bamboo and leaves were used to make a covering over his entrance.
-The smudge sticks were used to purify his new home and bring in positive energy.

As we continued the story, Mr. Badger opened his home to other animals affected by the storm. A workshop participant mentioned that Dachshund means badger hound in German; the Dachshund’s act of compassion toward Mr. Badger was particularly notable as they were normally enemies. Since Snakes love eggs, it was a good thing that the Robin egg hatched without the Snake noticing it. With time, Mr. Badger made his home larger and started taking in animals as guests and he used his lovely carpets to make a safe cozy bed for the Dachshund’s new puppies.

This experiment gave me a greater appreciation of the vision of the National Storytelling Network to bring about conditions where “all people value the power of storytelling and its ability to connect, inspire and instill respect within our hearts and communities.”

Later, workshop participants helped with another version of this practice. This time we went to a park with a dog statue so the dog could be the hero of the story. You can see our practice in this video created by Jeff Klein. Visit his website for more examples of his work.

Addendum: This post was updated to include the video of the later practice (see the link in the paragraph above).

Music of the Spheres and Your Brain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Could it be that our brains are singing meaning along with the universe?

Because I am taking a course on meditation and the brain, I have been thinking about how miraculous our continually changing human brains really are. I try to remind myself that even though we have names for parts of the complex brain, that does not mean we understand all that is going on.

For example, articles make broad claims about the benefits of singing, and my experience would agree. But studies also make clear that a better understanding of specific aspects might lead to useful practical applications. I began to wonder about whether the rhythms and compositions I intuitively frame in my close-up photos make use of skills enhanced by neuronal connections formed during many years of singing. My ability to detect and relate to subtle nuances in tone of voice certainly grew over that time.

Recently while meditating, I had the feeling that the fact that everything is constantly changing is not just an annoyance. It seemed a fundamental building block of reality and, in fact, worthy of awe. I had the odd thought that when our sun consumes our planet, that transience will still be vitally “alive.” I found that oddly reassuring.

Toward the end of this talk on the brain, Keith Kendrick mentions that the time series of activity in the brain carries meaning, not just the structure or individual signals. This resonated with the musical quality that physicists seem to find at all scales including the probability waves at the heart of quantum theory.

Of all the problematic human undertakings, we can be proud of the music we make using our miraculous brains and bodies. As this article on modern physics and music describes: “Music resonates, it pulses, it leaps into our psyches. It offers a safe space for scientists and musicians alike to work through the paradoxes of modern physics.”

On the Same Wavelength

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now Shah Hadjebi is focusing on his painting, a talent that runs in his family. Some of Shah’s watercolor images have been transferred to clothing and pillows like the one I treasure shown above. Shah and I would meet at an Indian restaurant with only a few tables. We usually had the place to ourselves. We inspired each other to sense and share in multiple dimensions as we discussed ideas for a press kit for his new “Departure” jazz album.

Connecting with clients to help them promote their creative passions is always enlarging as well as a source of great joy. Every once in a while, magic happens:

I first reached out to Shah Hadjebi for feedback on a sentence I planned to use in an article for a concert series I support. Here is what I wrote about his music: “This is the type of music you want to share with a close friend while traveling on the open road on a spectacular, star-spangled night.” To my surprise, Shah asked me if I would like to do PR for his group even though we had never met.

He explained that musicians would come and go as his group evolved. But they were all pros who could join in his vision and perform with minimal rehearsal. Their diverse backgrounds including African American, Persian, Malaysian, and Japanese added depth to the sound.

A benefit of taking Shah up on his offer was hanging out with the group at selected rehearsals where I got to talk to them during breaks. I also attended the concerts at places like the Hard Rock Café, and Johnny D’s.

When I did research for the new album’s press kit, I discovered that Persian blue is actually a family of colors associated with lapis lazuli. These colors are found in the glorious tiles used in middle eastern palaces and mosques. The Persian indigo variation is derived from the plant used for dying cloth for centuries in many cultures ranging from wax resist masterpieces in Japan to ubiquitous “blue jeans.” The lighter medium Persian Blue with its greater admixture of green suggests ocean and lake water.

The group’s logo shows hands holding up the famous NASA photo of our planet taken from space. I wrote, “Shah’s music speaks of sunrises, and departures; both the good life and our profound human struggles. Shah loves natural beauty, and the rich cultural diversity to be found in our one world. Both the logo and his music convey his warmth toward every single one of us who hold this precious small planet in our hands.”

When I had trouble reaching him, I decided to listen to an advance recording Shah had given me. These words just seemed to flow:

“The first cut, ‘Departure,’ is a drifting dream with a sense of ocean tides and deep undercurrents. The main theme first presented by the sax is haunting and draws you in before ocean waters wash ashore. Here one also finds the ebb and flow of sensed connection between two lovers who are not touching but read each other very well.

With ‘It’s all good’ you are looking in the door at a party with interesting guests who do not take themselves too seriously. There are conversations, comings and goings, laughter, ice clinking in glasses. A bit later, a talented couple starts dancing with others clapping in time. The couple continues to dance while a loud conversation starts up in another part of the room and things get looser and wilder. If you do not believe all this is happening, just listen to the music and come up with your own version.

When angels cry’ is thoughtful and mellow with vocals and various instruments telling the main story, followed by elaborations and comments. There is regret that is all the more poignant since the pure feeling is becoming diluted with time.

Dude where’s my boat?’ is a curious title. The composer has spent some time simply messing about in boats. In the fashion of jazz titles, you can go anywhere or everywhere. Did he really misplace his boat? Did it depart without him? Or was this one of those frustrating dreams, in which you find yourself lost? There are some rich Persian motifs in this one and a bit of metal rock sound.

Sunrise‘ (Sunrise music video) is richly evocative of a time of day beloved by this morning person composer who often does his best creative work in the early morning hours before others are up and about. The music presents a sky transforming with remarkable colors in real-time. It ends with well-being: a great cup of coffee in hand and anticipating a day rich in promise ahead.

The last three songs are different. For one thing, they reflect Shah’s experience writing and performing rock. For another, they reflect his multi-cultural sensitivity to the darker side of human nature.

Questions are asked about those who misuse power as well as those who fail to struggle against injustice and adapt. Whether taken at a national, village, or family level, as well as within each of us, these are familiar themes. The last song uses understatement to convey the horror of truly knowing and loving peace, and also living with the awful silences of war.

There is certainly a clear plea here. Of all the many meanings of ‘Departure,’ let’s hope that human compassion gradually wins out over our historical fear and insanity. Then we can see the sunsets, sense the sexual tension, enjoy the parties and even, occasionally, miss the boat.”

I sent Shah the draft telling him it was only a start. However, he told me not to change a thing; that both he and his family liked it just the way it was.

Magical Musical Fishpond Storytelling

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Imagine you are a member of a troupe of players in the Middle Ages who wander from town to town providing entertainment. It is time to develop some fresh material to present to the hard-working town folk, but the players have wandered far that day and are tired.

Suddenly there are soft tones coming from the woods. Following the music leads to a glade where someone is playing a tongue drum like the one above tapping it with her fingers. She says, “Here all are seen, and all visions are honored. You found me because magical musical fishpond story telling called out to you.”

This muse, for that is her calling, explains that her role is to inspire – she can be serious, silly, or even outlandish at times. You and the others are to weave a story. Playing the fish pond expresses the feelings of your imaginary characters. She warns them the fish can swim away if the players do not respect the ancient tradition of weaving stories with the power to heal.

Children naturally take to this kind of creative play. Adults can forget how powerful a radiant refuge it can be. Imagination is a gift that can bring us into contact with dreams, talents and aspirations. It can enlarge and ease us no matter the circumstances. So often we are lost in the pragmatic details of life, forgetting all of us are fully capable of creating joy and magic.

Voice Lessons

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Photo by Kathleen Fink

I met Joanna Porackova (left), several years ago when she was rehearsing for a concert. My choir director and talented composer, Jeffrey Brody (right), was accompanying her. The sanctuary where they practiced looked like a large overturned wooden boat with pews lined up under it. Sound bounced all around inside that space and musicians loved performing there.

I sat a few pews back. I was hoping for some feedback on a PR piece I had written for the local newspaper. When Joanna noticed me sitting there, she asked Jeffrey to start over again, so I could hear the piece they were rehearsing from the beginning. Joanna said, “She worked so hard on that article.” I was to learn that kind of thoughtfulness was typical of her. I do not take it for granted. I still feel honored that she did that.

Then the two of them performed just for me. Time stopped. Awe is no stranger to me. But the glorious sound of her voice took me over. They were in perfect accord about what the music should do. I knew at the time, I would never forget that experience.

When I came in early for choir rehearsal, I would sometimes see them in the sanctuary. At times, she was giving voice lessons to one of her students with Jeffrey accompanying. Other times, he would be coaching her on a new opera role, or a solo part in a major classical work. It was obvious they were good friends. Jeffrey is an expert on Wagner who coaches opera singers on Wagnerian roles, and Joanna’s voice is suited to that music. It was clear they both know the world of opera from the inside out, and enjoy talking about it.

Jeffrey suggested that I take a few voice lessons with Joanna. I did not take him up on the idea. I had been singing in one choir or another for much of my life. I loved choral singing, but I knew I was no soloist. However, when a choir friend suggested I join her for the warmup portion of her lesson with Joanna, I could not resist. That is how I started formal voice lessons in a limited kind of way, anyway, with a kind opera singer whose voice awed me.

The vocal warmups we did might look quite peculiar to someone observing us. We would position ourselves some distance apart on the strip of carpet in the center of the sanctuary. We held our heads up while lying on our stomachs in the Cobra position, practicing ever higher scales and coming back down again. We paid attention to filling our lower back with air in the Child Resting position. We ended by singing scales on various vowels while standing on one leg in the King of Dance and Tree positions. Then my friend would work on singing various pieces, and I would watch.

As I learned, early voice lessons are all about letting go of tension that shows up in the voice. Unlearning deeply ingrained habits can take time. Each person’s body, mind and experiences are different. It is the voice teacher’s job to figure out what would be most helpful. The routine she taught was how Joanna’s teacher taught her to do vocal practice. That made sense to me. Yoga is a way to free up energy in the body that works for many people. The sound I made was usually richer and stronger when I was in one of those odd positions, especially the arching ones that opened up the air way.

When I mentioned her kindness, Joanna told me she had intentionally chosen kindness as her way of coping in the world. She even used it during the unnerving auditions that all professional singers endure. To manage her fear, she uses her singing to send healing energy to those who are judging her. By her kindness, Joanna made herself totally trust worthy.

That kind of trust is useful for voice students since a high degree of exposed openness is involved in singing well with one’s whole heart. Before I started lessons, one of her professional students told me that all of her students love her. I have no doubt of that, even regarding any of her future students who have not met her yet.

My choir friend stopped taking voice lessons, so I began taking them on my own once a month. I explored a bit, discovering haunting Celtic songs that seemed a good match to my vocal quality, and my heritage.

For one of my lessons, Joanna asked if I minded if another person joined us for the warm up. I was happy to accommodate him. I sensed she wanted to help this young man in some way using the healing power of music. After the lesson, I said, “If you were not a professional singer, you could be a healer.” That was when she told me she had spent much of her career as a pediatric nurse.

Someone working in the hospital overheard Joanna singing to one of her young patients and suggested she contact a voice teacher he knew. By the time she had advanced to teaching nursing, her singing career was really taking off. She had a choice to make, and she chose music. She then performed opera roles and solos all around the world as well as appearing in radio programs and recordings.

She became known for her sense for the inner drama of the music and her wide vocal range. Those of us who know her well, however, would add kindness to her list of outstanding talents. Joanna told me that she still visits shut in senior clients in their homes and sings to and with them.

I stopped taking voice lessons when I became a graduate student in Lesley’s Mindfulness Studies program. I learned about many wonderful mindfulness practices and tried them all. Nonetheless, I consider singing one of my favorite mindfulness practices. I continue to sing with my choir friends. And I keep in touch with Joanna. I still wonder at the fact that I have a famous opera singer as a friend. But why not? She and I have many common interests including music, spirituality and healing.

Although I have not discussed the subject with her in detail, I am sure she would agree that singing is advanced mindfulness practice. While learning a new piece takes thought and voice lessons take effort, with singing itself, there is no time to stop and think about anything. One is aware of one’s breath, the nuances of the music, the words and their pronunciation, and the pitch and the quality of one’s sound, but it all flows. Letting go, over and over again like that is excellent mindfulness practice.

When a group of singers who like each other also like the music they are singing, a very strong communal awareness can arise. This sensitive and dynamic awareness is very much alive in its own right. The audience senses it when it is there in the sound. It is not guaranteed. Everything has to come together. I find singing in the midst of strong communal awareness to be a fundamental bottomed-out joy with freedom to it, a bit like taking flight.

Eventually we were able to find a slot of time when Joanna could join me in the tea hut I had installed in a mossy corner of my yard. I also invited a new friend who practices Tibetan Buddhism sensing that the two of them would like each other. I explained a little about Japanese tea ceremony and poured them bowls of tea in an informal version of the practice. Afterwards, we spoke of many things including the importance of making time to slow down and share like we were doing.

Joanna mentioned that she did not think she had told me she had learned to chant the Heart Sutra from a friend. My new Tibetan Buddhist friend asked if we could hear a bit of it. The three of us were standing in a triangle only three feet away from each other on the tatami mats in my small tea hut as she began. Time stopped.

Her vocal quality was entirely different from that time when I was first transfixed by her voice in the church sanctuary years earlier. There was an unexpected gruffness of tone that only enhanced the spiritual depth as she chanted the words. It was incredibly powerful. It was as if she were channeling an enlightened medieval monk.

It is not unusual for time to slow way down when I am in my tea hut sharing tea. But this was different. She told us there were tears in her eyes as she chanted because she knew that the two of us would understand.