What a view! This is what I see as I practice each day. This photograph was taken in late October from Fort Tryon Park overlooking the Hudson River. Some days are just amazingly beautiful up here on the hill. I can see the George Washington Bridge to my left and just barely see the Harlem River connecting off to my right. This is the perfect place to play, partially because I’m directly over the Henry Hudson Parkway (HWY 9A), which means that I will never bother anyone with my obnoxious trumpet calisthenics.
The first priority in realizing the life (my life) of a jazz musician is to maintain and ensure the highest level of personal performance, in other words: Be Ready. At any moment, you may be asked to play for or with musicians who can radically change the course of your career. Every time you place the horn to your lips, you are essentially “auditioning” for your next gig. There’s a phrase, “You’re only as good as your last note.” There’s some truth in that.
My situation in Minneapolis was luxurious in that I could see on my calendar when the Big Gigs were scheduled, and could prepare accordingly. I would keep my skills at a decent level through teaching and practicing in the office, and then would crank up the practice intensity during the few weeks before a show.
In New York, every day must focus primarily on the horn. Currently, I have no teaching commitments, so I have the opportunity to really explore the trumpet again. I’ve gone back to a system of intense practice called, “Shugyo.” This is something that I started in November of 2002 after reading Blowing Zen by Ray Brooks. It is a well-written, highly enjoyable story about discovering the shakuhachi, its music, and its deeper cultural significance. It is among the top three or four most influential books dealing with music that I’ve come across, probably because it isn’t really about music at all.
“Shugyo,” which means “practice,” comes from the word shugendo, or the “ascetic path to realization,” and describes spiritual exercise or training. It can take any form, just as long as deeply focused discipline is present and ki energy is developed. My chosen form of practice was to hike up Mount Takao each day, and, once at the top, play shakuhachi for six hours, then hike back down again. My aspirations weren’t so lofty as to become an “awakened one” but simply to increase my physical strength, vastly improve my musical skills, develop ki, and learn more about discipline. – page 163, Blowing Zen
In 2002, I set a goal of playing three hours a night after my teaching was done. I would play from 9:00pm until 12:00 midnight, hoping to make a straight 60 day stretch (with the exception of performance conflicts). During this time, I was writing specific exercises for the trumpet based on Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. These original exercises became the exclusive musical content of my sessions. The shugyu lasted slightly over a month, yet in this time I managed to unearth more personal resources than I ever expected.
Over the years, my definition of shugyo has changed to consist of focused practice EVERY DAY, not just a 60 day block. The time frame is now more flexible along with the content of each session. I still play from the original shugyo material as often as possible, however my musical focus can shift depending on my needs.
Here in New York, I have adopted one important aspect of Ray Brook’s original shugyo; I am playing outside. So far, the weather has been relatively mild (compared to Minnesota!). There have been a couple of cold rainy days, and on those days I am reminded of the book and smile.
Shit! What am I doing up here? It’s absolutely ludicrous standing here. Sixty days! And me supposed to be a man of no goals! Why would anyone in his right mind spend his time standing on the side of a mountain in the pissing rain? I could have stayed at home and done my sixty days at my own temple. Prat! It’s bloody embarrassing. I’m freezing, my legs are aching, and my back is killing me. I bet I’m the only fool on this mountain today. – page 164, Blowing Zen
I’ve found that the act of preparation goes a long way in executing a successful practice session. As I walk up the 80 stairs of the Alpine Garden and then wind my way up and around the path to the Cloisters, I can clear my mind of the buzzing and begin to think about why I’m up here. The park is an oasis of nature in an urban landscape. There are a couple of cats that live in the park and a black squirrel that I’ve named Charlie. When I reach the overlook, I sit on one of the benches and lay my case to my right side. Take out the horn. Breath, focus, breath, open your eyes, go.
A painter seats himself before his pupils. He examines his brush and slowly makes it ready for use, carefully rubs ink, straightens the long strip of paper that lies before him on the mat, and finally, after lapsing for a while into profound concentration, in which he sits like one inviolable, he produces with rapid, absolutely sure strokes a picture which, capable of no further correction and needing none, serves the class as a model.
A flower master begins the lesson by cautiously untying the bast which holds together the flowers and sprays of blossom, and laying it to one side carefully rolled up. Then he inspects the sprays one by one, picks out the best after repeated examination, cautiously bends them into the form which exactly corresponds with the role thay are to play, and finally places them together in an exquisite vase. The completed picture looks just as if the Master had guessed what Nature had glimpsed in dark dreams – pages 41 and 42, Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel
These routines are not mindless. Every motion both creates and requires focused concentration. If you can achieve this state BEFORE you begin a task, the quality of your subsequent actions, in this case a practice session, increases tenfold.
I’ve been climbing these steps since September. Now it’s become a welcome part of my life. Practice is a daily challenge with no immediate reward and no applause.
Shakuhachi is not really an instrument that one can take up casually just for entertainment. It takes infinite patience and great presence of mind to learn it. If played with passion and without motive, it can become much more than just a musical instrument. For me, it’s been a valuable tool that has helped to unfold the deeper, more important questions of life. It’s been a fine teacher, and many times the harshest of mirrors,” he added, laughing loudly again. “As you study, don’t be concerned about ‘Am I getting better?’ Just practice for its own sake, and let progress take care of itself. Don’t corrupt the beauty of learning by becoming attached to an end goal. – page 58 and 59, Blowing Zen
One day at a time.