Tuesday, January 10, 2017

How to Listen, How to Play

People come to study with me at my home studio. We get together from 2 to 8 hours at a time, going over all manner of ideas and techniques about Gongs, Bowls, and Bells. It can be rigorous. It can be insightful. It can give you enough to work on for weeks, months, years. It can set your head spinning in multiple directions.

But here's the thing, I can teach you mechanics: how to hold a mallet, how to wield it, how to strike the instrument to obtain the desired sound. I can also inform you all about the instruments themselves: where they come from. How they're made. How they're different from, or similar to, each other. We can spend all day working and going over the finer points of everything, but there's one thing I can't teach you:

I can't teach you what to play.

I can't teach you what sounds to create, what order to create them in, whether they should be loud or quiet, high or low. I can't tell you any of that. You have to learn that on your own.

Art is a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living.
John Cage

You have to listen to the wind, listen to the trees rustling, listen to the water running in the creek, listen to the traffic out your window, or the baby crying next door. You have to listen to the world around you to gain the experience that you can use to determine how you will produce a sound. 

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Monday, January 2, 2017

Looking for that Repeat Experience

From the mail box today, a question…

I may have told you that I had some amazing experiences with sound; gong, and shruti box in the past and I was able to get to a pure kundalini/shakti state from this work from a teacher in the past but I cannot seem to get there since (which was a few years back).”

I think we’ve all had peak experiences that are difficult to recreate or repeat. I know that I have. Two things come to mind here:

1) While experiences like these are amazing, they can’t be repeated, at least not exactly. A big thing is to allow each experience be its own experience.

2) Being relaxed and open is important. And again, being open to whatever experience happens, rather than ‘hoping for’ a repeat of a past experience. One doesn’t want to repeat the experience as much as to be able to repeat the conditions that allowed the experience to happen. A big part of my human side longs to repeat many of the great experiences of my past, but I have found each one to be unique, especially when playing the Gongs. I know that if I expect things, or try to make things happen, that they don’t. 

The more things stay the same, the more they change

This is one reason each of my sessions is different. I don’t follow a script because I have found that doesn’t work. Rather, I have learned over time to trust myself (to make the right ‘sound’ choices), trust the Gongs/Bowls/Bells (to make the right sounds), and trust the people attending to create the right conditions to allow a unique experience. 

This is all similar to what athletes work at, to be able to recreate the mind set/openness that lead to a peak performance. There are many good books out there on “Flow” and “Peak Experiences.” 

Zen in the Art of Archery

When you are focused on winning (or some other desired outcome), you have already lost. Focus instead on the act itself, rather than the desired outcome. Focusing on the act frees you from desire, frees you from letting that desire get in the way of just being and acting. This is not to say that you shouldn't want to have similar experiences as you have had in the past, just realize that they may happen and be different in many ways. We all need to learn to let each experience be its own and, to value each one because it is unique.

In the end, it becomes a situation of working hard at not working hard—one of life’s conundrums.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry water /Play Gongs™

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Importance of Ritual

noun rit·u·al

  1. 1 :  the established form for a ceremony; specifically :  the order of words prescribed for a religious ceremony

  2. 2 a :  ritual observance; specifically :  a system of rites 
    b :  a ceremonial act or action 
    c :  an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner

    (from Merriam-Webster)

Ritual. We see them all around us, some conspicuous, some slightly obscured. We see them in our religions, in our businesses, in our clubs and sports. Some of us may even have rituals that we do. 

A good example of a ritual is in sports. A lot of athletes go through some sort of pre-game ritual. Maybe they listen to their favorite inspiring music, or meditate, or have talisman/lucky charms with them. They may get dressed in exactly the same way each time, for example, always put the left sock on first, keeping things in the same order.

We may look at these rituals as outsiders and think they are silly or meaningless. We might also snarkly refer to them as voodoo or superstition, but this shows a complete lack of understanding. 

A ritual is a symbolic set of thought/motions/procedures designed to create a certain mindset. 

The art of the Mandala

In the case of an athlete, it's designed to put them in the frame of mind of peak performance. Think back to any group you may have joined, like a fraternity/sorority, or a business group, or even the military. There may have been some sort of initiation ceremony that you went through. This ceremony was more than just a show for people to see. The idea of ceremonies like this is to create a certain atmosphere that creates a certain mind set. And in this capacity, it's very important. Buy going through the ritual/ceremony, you enter into the group mind, you become a part of something greater.

Think about your own practice. Do you go through some sort of ritual before each session, or do you just show up and get started, jumping right in? 

Take the time to think about if ritual is a part of your practice.


If you don't currently have a ritual, you might want to think about developing one. Look at what you do that helps set the mood, getting you into a positive frame of mind. It might be as simple as listening to some inspiring music, or reading your favorite poem. You might use scents, like burning incense or sage, or using essential oils. 

For me, I like to set everything up and then check it all to make sure everything is tight, with no squeaks or rattles from a loose wing nut. Then I like to either read or listen to some music, also doing some Mudras (hand gestures), using sacred oils, and evoking various spirits, among other things. I often bring various talismans, that I have collected over the years, that mean something to me. These are things that I've collected in my travels presenting sessions and concerts all over. This is all done in order to get me focused on playing my Gongs/Bowls/Bells. I really like to have a clear head that is open to the vibrations. And this can be 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes—all depending on how much time I have after setting up.

What rituals do you go through?

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Essence and Power of Tradition

The instruments we play—Gongs, Bowls, Bells—come with deep lineage and and long lasting traditions. There is power there. There is magic. There is superstition. And there is also a lot of bull shit.

It's almost 2017, and as modern and developed as mankind has become, it has also lost touch with so much rich and varied tradition handed down over the ages. In many ways we have become so blind in our quest for the future, that we have forgotten the past.

Philippine Gong tradition

Here's a test:
Go out in your neighborhood, or your local park. How many tree species can you actually identify and name, besides oaks and maples? The same thing goes for both flowers and weeds. It wasn't that long ago that people were much more connected with their surroundings and could identify them. In many cases it was a life of death matter to know your plants: which ones are safe to eat, which ones will kill you.
 Do you know that there are a lot of city kids who have never seen a live animal besides a dog, cat, maybe a squirrel, and the local bird species? People who live in the city see very little diversity in wildlife, except on TV, or the internet. Think about it, there are people who have never seen a cow or a horse in the flesh! 

The same holds true for the instruments you play. Can you identify the various Gongs/Bowls/Bells and both tell where they come from and what they're called? I go on Ebay and see so many Gongs/Bowl/Bells identified as Tibetan, even though they are clearly from somewhere else. Sellers say, “I'm no expert, but have done my best to identify this.” Hah! Tibetan is the hot buzzword, so they use it to sell a product and don't really care.

Tradition is all around you (Vietnam)

But as a musician (You do identify yourself as a musician if you play Gongs/Bowls/Bells, don't you?), you should know better. You should strive to continually learn about the instruments you play. Besides what the instruments are, you should know how they are used in traditional settings, even if you never play them that way. You should know and respect the traditions that have brought them to this present day.

Knowledge is more than just power. It is understanding, it is clarity, and it is being part of a tradition and lineage that stretches back through time. Be an active part of that tradition.


Next time, we will look at the importance of ritual…

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Friday, December 9, 2016

It's A Gong World After All

I remember when I first started playing Gongs, other than Paiste, there wasn't much available. Zildjian made a few Turkish style ones. UFIP, in Italy, made some, but they were often difficult to find. And China was still an enemy of the USA, so real Chinese Gongs were practically nonexistent. For most Asian Gongs, you had to know someone who knew someone; or you had to know an Asian American who had connections back in the mother country. And if you were fortunate enough to live on the West Coast, where Asian immigrants imported a lot of musical instruments from their homelands; or to be a scholar/researcher/word traveler who could go to Asia, you could pick them up yourself.

40 years ago I was buying buying bells at Pier One stores, because they actually carried a nice selection of bells from India. Then World Market (before they became just a food/wine/furniture retailer) came around and they had drums, bells, Gongs, and ethnic percussion. I got some of my 1st Gongs from Carroll Sound in New York City back in 1974. They Suppled exotic percussion to all the studios and orchestras in NYC, as well as universities. I bought some Gongs from Thailand and Japan from them. The only Chinese Gongs they had were from Taiwan, not mainland China. Today you can buy Gongs just about everywhere. I've seen them at Target (yes, but just cheap tourist Gongs for decoration, but Gongs none the less) and Singing Bowls at the food co-op. 

From Carroll Sound's catalog, early 1970s

So now everybody has a Singing Bowl and/or a Gong, but they know little or nothing about them. It's nice if you can get a Ph.D. in ethnomusicality, or travel/live in the Orient, or just get to know the local Llama/Monk in your neighborhood/city so you can find out a few things about the instruments you have. But most people don't have those type of opportunities. 

While nothing beats first hand knowledge, there is the internet. It is possible to do a lot of research, finding written, audio, and video, covering instruments and their uses, history and ethnic traditions, as well as modern applications. There are also books and recordings available. This all takes time and hard work—think of it as being a detective searching for clues and answers—but it's worth it.

Don't just play. Know.

~ MB

In the next post, we'll look at the role of tradition in all this.

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Saturday, December 3, 2016

How Should You Face?

Today's blog comes from this week's mail box. A question was asked, 
“Although I originally learned and observe others playing the gong with their back to receivers, gong facing them, I've changed that so that I can occasionally look up to check on my students. What is your opinion?”
 What way to face? I usually have my Gongs behind me and face away from the people. As a drummer, this just evolved out of having my Gongs behind my drum set years ago. I still set up that way today, partly out of habit, partly out of practicality, especially in a concert situation. 

Circa 1980: drums in front, Gongs in back.

Circa 2015: drum in front, Gongs in back.

So naturally, in a Gong Meditation Session, I usually have the Gongs in the back, with Bells and Bowls in the front. It's more of a circular set up where I move around and face different ways, depending on what instruments I'm playing. But if I'm working with a Yoga teacher, or something similar, I will usually be behind the Gongs so I can watch what's happening.

Me: Gongs behind, Bowls in front. Kenny Kolter: Gong in front, Bowls on the side.

There's no real rules on this. I know people who face toward, and people who face away. Whatever is most comfortable for you is the most important thing. 

Another question I get is “How should the session participants face?” I know some people who say, “You should lay with your head facing the Gongs, so the energy goes into your Crown Chakra.” Personally, I don't suggest or prefer any position for participants. I always start a session by offering various suggestions: laying with your head towards the Gongs, or away from the Gongs. I also tell people to feel free to sit up if they're more comfortable. Also, feel free to change position. I have found that it's more important for people to be comfortable than to all be in a predetermined position. Besides, we are all different, and you may receive more benefit from one position, while your neighbor will from a different position. It's important to remain fluid in all things.

Thanks to Tamara for the original question!


Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Journey is the Destination

Today, more musings on questions recently asked. This time, I look at what we really do. Someone was asking, “Is there a goal to our playing?” Another way to look at it is, should we look towards an endpoint when we are playing?

This is an interesting question. In the modern world, we are brought up in an atmosphere of winning is everything. It seems all our activities have as their purpose, getting better grades, making more money, acquiring more things. But in our quest for all this, we have lost our direction and veered off the path. We are wandering around in the weeds of material gain, looking for a destination.

The important thing to realize when we play the Gongs/Bowls/Bells, is that there is no destination

The journey itself is the destination. 

It's important to be in the moment, to be fully present when playing. Too often we can be sidetracked by thinking ahead, thinking about some imagined ending, or result. But by being so focused ahead, we miss the now. We miss what is going on around us in real time.

When seeing, just see; when hearing, just hear; when knowing, just know; and when thinking, just think. (Udana 1.10) The Buddha 

By being present in the now, we can enjoy the process, the unfolding of things. We are also not slaves to expectation, instead letting things exist at their own pace. When you are not in the present, you miss everything. You miss the beauty of the sound, the connection, the self in the moment. Don't deny yourself the pleasure of the present moment.

Be here now - Ram Dass

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™