Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Zen and the Art of Playing the Saxaphone

Zen and the art of playing the saxophone.

The sheen of the brass could have easily been mistaken for gold. As a child when i watched an artiste playing the saxophone, he appeared larger than life. I imagined him to have the most powerful lungs and breath holding capacity. There was a touch of surreality to not just the sound that emanated but to  the aesthetics, graceful curve and the ivory keys of the instrument.
It was probably an infatuation at a tender age but any kind of romance in childhood  has  the most profound and prolonged impact.
The fascination for the instrument in teenage years almost grew to an obsession on  seeing a matinee idol  flaunting the instrument effortlessly to woo the reluctant heroine. It added to his machismo and made his  appeal irresistible. Or so I thought considering my innate fondness for the instrument.
The many stories and rumours about the saxophone being the most difficult instrument to learn made me abandon all hope to  make any attempt to pursue my dream. Hearing solo renditions of the instrument in hotel lobbies or elevators only whetted my lust for the unattainable.
Limitations of any kind are most often self imposed and my giving up any hopes of playing the saxophone was no different.
      One fine day on an impulse I just drove down to music store and bought myself the instrument that had captured my imagination for so long. Taking a few tips about assembling the neck, the reed and the mouth piece I  began courting this beauty. Just the feel of the instrument as I hooked it in the harness made me feel ecstatic. The sounds that I emanated were a cacophony. So remote from those ethereal notes that I had imagined.  It was largely like travelling on uncharted territory. Almost like getting to know another person.
As I puffed and snorted like a bull into the mouthpiece all I got in return was a high pitched squeal. This was surely not the way i had seen the  more accomplished ones play. It couldn't be so painful and exhausting. One was supposed to clasp the mouth  piece between the upper teeth and the upcurled lower lip covering the lower teeth. The so called embouchere.
     As I ran my hands along the polished metallic contours I was filled with a sense of despair.
I had to keep blowing and changing the angle of how I held the instrument every time I tried. Each day was a similar experience. Blow hard,  catch my breath, restore  the contours of my ears drums and then keep the instrument aside and leave all further attempts  for another day.
One day as I was packing the  instrument into its case, an idea flashed across my mind. Almost a divine revelation.
I hurriedly reassembled the device and instead of taking a deep bite embouchere, I closed my mouth closer to the tip of the mouthpiece and drew the breath from the inner recesses of my lower abdomen.
The sound that emerged was certainly sounding like a note. I quickly positioned my fingers as instructed and lo behold !
The notes were distinct and clear as I lifted my fingers one by one. The exhilaration was indescribable. The most fundamental lesson of getting the embouchere right was at best - serendipitous.
         As the cacophony and noise was being replaced by more coherent notes I realised the importance of technique. Technique is what enhances the mechanical advantage. Skill is  optimal deployment of force and effort. Some  are blessed with skills congenitally whilst the lesser fortunate ones have to strive to acquire them.
As my interaction  increased it decreased the intimidation by the instrument  and soon I was looking forward to the  practice sessions.  I was warned by many that it would be nigh impossible to learn this instrument without learning the chords and notes. The sharps, flats, major and minors always were confusing and I realised that I was incapable of familiarising myself with this musical jargon.
      Approach to learning can be either classical or romantic. The classical approach is method based. A series of sequential chronological steps that eventually  become established  neuronal circuits in the brain. A left brain phenomenon.
The romantic approach is one that makes learning  a process of forgetting ones inabilities. It is not necessarily the outcome of any sequential protocols. The beauty of this approach is that it is unique for each one. A path that each one makes for oneself. It has a spontaneity and a novelty. A process of discovery. It is not incremental and dawns as a realisation. A right brain phenomenon that is more intuitive than inquisitive.
Getting the appropriate note by deploying the correct embouchure and blowing from deep within is just the beginning.
All music starts in the mind. Each note with all the attributes of the tone, pitch, amplitude, sustain etc is first sounded in the mind. Using this  reference point one goes about co-ordinating the finger placement, the grip on the mouth piece and the intensity of blowing. When the sound emerges a real time comparison of the emerged sound with the reference manual of the mental note happens before the next note is contemplated upon. The mind splits into parts. One part that assesses the emerged note, one part constructs the mental image of the next note, one part determines how the fingers ought to be manipulated, as another part  subtlely reminds to take the next breath. The fragmentation of one's conscious intelligence and the delegation of responsibility to  each part is the beginning of Zen. The Zen-narrative mentions a realisation that is a "special transmission outside scriptures which does not stand upon words"
      This fragmentation is still based on a fundamental underlying unity of one's consciousness. This intellectual symphony is above all continually observed  by an impersonal consciousness. The "Witness". This impersonal witness remains non judgemental.This fragmentation process becomes more cohesive and  the process of playing successive notes becomes smoother. Each step merges imperceptibly into the other and one approaches the  Zen moment. This moment is the most ecstatic. At this moment all premeditation, deliberation fragmentation disappears and is replaced by a spontaneous effortless synchronicity. Like the pleasure the child gets when he turns back to see no one is holding the seat anymore, the  peddling continues and the away cycle speeds along. Holding the balance while cycling is a realisation. Its not knowledge. It's a state of mind. The sound becomes a kind of symphony.
There are two different ways of understanding and actually practicing Zen. These two different ways are termed in Chinese pen chueh and shih-chueh respectively. The term pen chueh refers to the belief that one’s mind is from the beginning of time fully enlightened, while shih-chueh refers to the belief that at some point in time we pass from imprisonment in ignorance and delusion to a true vision of Zen realization: “Our enlightenment is timeless, yet our realization of it occurs in time.”
I experienced  this Shih-chueh moment playing the saxophone. The realisation that I all along knew how to play this instrument and my inability to play it was merely my imaginary ignorance.

Deepak Ranade


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