Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Understanding Shame

I have a student (I'll call him Hal) who often triggers an essay or blog. His lesson yesterday was no exception. Hal had completed the score for an indie film. The director, producer, et al, were more than satisfied, they were thrilled. They thought his work would raise their film to a new level.

Then he said he had a piece for chamber quartet that he thought was really, really good, and he wished he knew how to break into "the system" to get it played. But he was "an outsider," didn't have the right credentials, his music degree wasn't even in composition, etc., etc. I gave him half a dozen suggestions about where to send the piece. He repeated all the reasons why no one would pay any attention to it, and added that all those thoughts were no doubt due to his "superiority complex," because he thought his quartet was so new, so different, that it would change music in a positive way.

A perfect example of what Brene Brown talks about in one of her TED talks (, and what I've written about in Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer. Except that Brown doesn't seem to realize, at least in that lecture, that the shame affect is positive for our well-being. According to Sylvan Tomkins' affect theory, shame is an innate physiological mechanism that, when we get too excited - when our breathing and heart rates become too elevated - returns our bodies to a more normal state.

What happens when we perform  - and I consider that to be any time we expect to be judged - we get excited, anxious. In Brown's term, vulnerable. "Too" excited, and shame is triggered and, along with it, our entire humiliation biography. We know we've crossed over that line between excitement and shame when we begin to hear the negative thoughts about ourselves or our work running around in our heads.

After I told Hal that what he had just said made no sense at all (We have a long relationship, so I used stronger terms and banged my head melodramatically on the music stand.), I ran through the above explanation. He'd heard it all before in a different context, but hadn't related it to his composing.

Brown is right that "vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change." The reality, for Hal, is that his composition is not likely to change the world of music. A lot of people, string quartets included, are afraid of change. So if he takes his excitement - what he had called his "superiority complex" - down a notch, all those negative thoughts will fade away. He'll be able to market his piece in a clear-headed manner.

Listening to shame is a good idea, if we understand what shame is really telling us.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rhythm Uncaged

The Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett broadcast on PBS was vaguely irritating, but I didn't know why. Her costuming was a little odd, given the period of the music they were singing. Bennett, after all, was there in his tux, as he would have been in the old days.

I walked into another room, away from the distracting visuals, and realized my irritation came from their non-duetness. They were singing from different rhythmic bases. Bennett was feeling the rhythm in his entire body. Gaga didn't feel the rhythm lower than 4 inches in her chest. Bennett was in the groove. Gaga was making shallow footprints in the sand. As a listener, I was having to switch back and forth physically, and began to lose the beat myself.

I took a few drumming lessons a couple of decades ago, but quit because I couldn't beat the drum and count out loud at the same time, as instructed. I was okay when I was yelling "1, 2, 3, 4." Not so bad with "1 and 2 and 3 and 4." But I fell apart at "1, ugh, and, ugh, 2, ugh, and, ugh . . ." I could beat the rhythm fine if I didn't have to count what I was doing. Counting is in the head; rhythm is in the body.

When we're breathing naturally, the lungs expand downward with the incoming air, compressing the guts against the pelvic diaphragm; then the guts press back to expel the carbon dioxide. In rhythm. The fluid of the central nervous system flows all the way down the spine and then back up around the head. In rhythm.

Watch a pre-toddler listening to music. They rock on their diapered bottoms and wave their arms in perfect rhythm. They're not musical prodigies, they're just being human. Still too young to think about music, they're feeling it in entire bodies.

Rhythm isn't a skill we need to be taught; rhythm is life that too often needs to be uncaged.  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Music and the Brain

A few facts about music and the brain:

1 Listening to music activates both the cognitive and emotional areas of the brain.

2 Playing a musical instrument also puts the visual, auditory, and motor areas of the brain into play and, over time, strengthens the corpus callosum, the bridge between the right and left hemisphere.

3 No other activity measured to date involves as many brain connections.

4 We acquire musical memories first and they're the last to leave. Alzheimer's patients who may not recognize a spouse or their children are able to recognize tunes from their past.

5 Humans sang before they spoke, singing that involved both rhythm and melody. Stroke victims who have lost the ability to speak can sing songs from their past.

If music involves more of the brain than any other activity, if music actually strengthens the brain, both in terms of the volume and speed of connections, why wouldn't we build an educational system with music at the core?  

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Crying For No Reason

In a video that's circulating (, a 10-month baby responds to her mother's sad song with tears. Tears collecting in the eyes, then sliding down the cheeks.  Sadness isn't one of the 7 pure affects that Sylvan Tomkins recorded in 6-weeks-old babies, but this sure looks pure to me. Enjoyment, one of Tomkins' affects, is visible on the baby's face at the beginning of the song. She attempts to imitate 3 or 4 of her mother's words with her lips. Then the tears begin to collect.

We don't think of babies being sad. Red-faced crying when they're hungry, shrieks when something hurts, but not tears of sadness. But our emotions are sensory responses to our experiences, not cognitive responses. The mother sings the song's sadness, wraps the baby in her own emotional field, the baby responds. As adults, we don't always know why we cry. An image, a song, a few words of kindness, and the tears appear. We don't decide to cry. We don't "think" about the reasons for our crying unless we're asked.

We don't think of babies being lonely. One of my grandsons was adopted when he was nine-months old. When he was four, his mother was pushing him on a swing, higher and higher. They were still laughing as they left the playground, hand in hand. He said, "I was so lonely until you found me."

That emotional responses can't be tested in pre-verbal children doesn't mean that they're not being felt and remembered. That we don't have reasons for our own emotional responses doesn't mean that they're not real and valid.



Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What Is Creativity?

What is creativity? I've been trying to puzzle through this question all week.

The facts that I know bring up more questions: 

(1) Every culture on earth will, if it has enough resources to survive, begin to add decoration to themselves, to their pots and cave walls. They will dance and sing. They will tell stories. Does this mean that creativity is an inherent human drive?

(2) Creativity is not limited to artists. Entrepreneurs are creative. Workers are urged to "think outside the box" - to come up with creative solutions to problems. A friend was recently complaining about her life. She was under so much pressure; she needed time and quiet; she had no money. Another friend, a secular person but a retired therapist, said, "Why not become a nun?" Where did that off-the-wall idea come from? She doesn't know. "I just wanted to jog her thinking into a new path."

(3) Creativity is such a powerful force that it has historically been suppressed and punished. Are we then crippled, mentally and emotionally, if we're not allowed to live and work creatively? As we would be physically, if our feet were bound, or if we were malnourished? 

(3) Julia Cameron, in The Artist's Way, says that "God, The Great Creator"is a form of spiritual electricity that we can tap into. Is this another name for the same field that Sir Rupert Sheldrake calls  morphogenesis? He characterizes this field as an information, not a creative, field. But I know two inventors who claim that, if they have an idea for a new widget, they'd better get to the Patent Office in two weeks before someone else beats them to it.

What is creativity?     

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Creative Problem-Solving

When/how do we get answers to our creative problems? Seldom by trying to think our way through, a method that seems to get more circular and frustrating the longer we keep at it.

I knew an electrical engineer who had developed a strict problem-solving regimen. He laid out the problem before he went to bed, then thought no more about it. The next morning, while shaving, he opened his mind to any ideas that might float up, no matter how irrational or unrelated to the problem they appeared to be.

A writer friend finds answers when he goes for a walk with the intention of staying in the present and opening all his senses to whatever flows in. The scent of honeysuckle and new-mown grass on one such walk provided the solution to an unfinished story he'd put away months ago, a story unrelated to either honeysuckle or grass.

In her Writing and Wellness newsletter (, Colleen M. Story writes that she keeps a notebook by her bed for the answers that come in that dreamy, not-quite-conscious period between sleep and waking each morning.

My ah-ha moments often come in the shower. When I lived in an old house without a shower, I relied on ideas coming at the intersection of Rtes. 27 and 518, where there was no stoplight and where I sat in my car for a long time with my conscious mind only partially engaged.

In each of these anecdotes - and I have many, many more - either the problem-solvers are open to sensory experiences or their minds are in a semi-conscious state. In all of these anecdotes they were ready to accept solutions that they would have discarded as illogical if they had been "thinking" about the problem.      

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Know Who You Are

I'm an avid follower of The Voice. This season the coaches' theme seems to be "Know who you are." Based on the genre the contestants choose, the music they choose within the genre, and the persona they present on stage.

Not easy advice. If we continue to learn and grow, we must continue to adjust our self-images. Like children whose shoes fit fine yesterday, we don't become aware of the need for a new image until the old one begins to constrict us.

Unlike children, who know when they need bigger shoes, adults tend to rationalize their discomfort. We blame ourselves when the towns we live in or the jobs we have become too small. When the people around us no longer understand what we're interested in or what excites us. We try to fit into the outgrown shoes instead of shopping for new ones.

As in any creative process - for we are always creating who we are - frustration and pinching is often what we need to re-assess ourselves. Who have I become? What will feed this new person? Who will make room for me?