Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Art of the Tea Way

“The art of the Tea Way consists simply of boiling water, preparing tea and drinking it.” Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), Way of Tea 
Simple advice—boil water, prepare tea, drink it—but not always easy to do. The world has become such a fast paced place. Our modern existence owes much to being connected, being scheduled, and, being busy. Sometimes part of that is making things more complicated than they need be. We've become so used to things being busy, being complicated, that we forget how to let go and let things just be.

In his time, Rikyū took what what had become an elaborate and ostentatious tea ceremony, discarding everything he felt was not needed and detracted from the essence of drinking the tea itself.  This new tea style owed a lot to the simplicity of Zen thought, as well as the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi. The idea of wabi-sabi is to make things simple, natural, and serene. For Rikyū, this meant ridding the tea ceremony of all unneeded trappings, including the movements made in making the tea. This would allow the participants to focus on the essence of the tea itself.

Even the Gongs can become part of the everyday circus: do you have the latest Gong, the fanciest new mallet, a special carpet, candles, and on and on. It can be easy to get caught up in the distractions of life, playing, yet forgetting to take the time to listen ourselves. We can learn from Rikyū to leave the unnecessary behind.
Set up, play the Gong, and listen to it.
There is nothing more that is needed.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Gong Has No Religion

First off: this is blog post number 101 of The Way of the Gong™! Little did I know some 2 ½ years ago, that I would even reach 100 blog posts, let alone still be writing this. Thanks for all your questions, comments, and most of all, for reading these past 100 posts. Here's to the next 100!

The Gong Has No Religion

While Gongs, Bowls, and Bells have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years, to label any of them as belonging to a religion/spirituality, or exclusively to any one tradition, is a dangerous claim. The instruments themselves are made of metals dug out of the earth, and forged into form by fire and hammering. They have no built in meaning or value, as they are merely objects. Any sort of meaning we find attached to them is assigned to them by man. 

This is an inanimate metal object

For example, the Singing Bowl. It is often associated with Tibet, monks, monastaries, and secret rituals that are unknown to the Western world. While there is evidence of them being used in temples and ceremonies, for the most part, they are everyday objects that have been mystified by dealers/traders in order to sell them to the Western public. A good example of this is the notion that the best bowls are made of 10 metals, including meteorite! Who wouldn't want to buy a bowl like that?

While we see many Christian churches with large bells in their steeples, we also see similar bells in government buildings, fire stations, schools, and other places. The Bell as an exclusive church object does not exist. The same can be said for smaller Bells. While they are often used/heard in churches and temples, they are also heard in banks, offices, schools, and various other public places. Bells are used in music and dance, and in calling people to dinner. Bells are ubiquitous to human society.

The same can be said for the Gong. Even though Yogi Bhajan is credited with making the Gong popular in Yoga and meditation, it is neither an exclusively Sikh, or spiritual/religious instrument.  Yes, it works well with Kundalini Yoga and Meditation, but Gongs are also great with symphonic orchestras and hard rock bands.

While Gongs, Bowls, and Bells all work well within the framework of various spiritual practices, just remember that they not in themselves spiritual objects, rather, they are vehicles for expressing your spiritualism. 

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Essential Essence of Rhythm & Melody

I was recently out in California where I had the chance to play with a fantastic sax/woodwind player. He also happens to be a Gong & Singing Bowl collector, so I was able to use his instruments, instead of having to bring anything out there with me (except a bag of mallets). Being in a situation like this really tests you. On one hand, I wasn't able to go to my usual sounds and ideas. But on the other hand, I was free to come up with new sounds and ideas. It was also the first time we had played together, so I was starting from a blank canvas in many ways. 

Now in retrospect, I can look at what I really brought with me, which was years of practicing and performing in many situations, as well as years of searching and experimenting with sounds. The launching point for everything I do musically, is that I was trained as a percussionist. I can't help that because percussion is me, is in my blood, is in my soul. I say this because I realize that a lot of people who play Gongs/Bowls/Bells, come from a non-percussion background, or even a non-music background. So in all of my blog posts here, you need to understand that I write everything from a percussionist's point of view, tempered with my interests in Buddhism, spirituality, and physics. So let's take a look at what I learned about what and how I do things from the above experience.

The Heartbeat of Rhythm

Rhythm, its essence, is always on my mind. Whether consciously or more subliminally, it guides what do. While to the listener, it may seem as if there is no rhythm—because the actual pulse is measured in minutes, rather than the usual rapid fire series of staccato notes—trust me that there is a measured pulse being played. When I play, I'm always counting, or at least sensing the time between each notes played. I play a note, listen to it, listen to it fade away, and sense the space until I play the next note.  This is time running more aligned with nature instead of clock time.

While I often play long, slow pulses of rhythm that seem to evaporate into the air around us, I also play faster, more familiar pulses that move with a sense of urgency. These streams of notes are punctuated with accents and shadings to both the pitch and texture of the sound. I think of them as living strings of notes because they are anything but static. They may be in a measured meter (4/4, ¾, etc), or they may be in a series of changing meters/pulses (7 to 5 to 11, etc), or, it may be a stream of notes with no specific meter, but divided up into pulses that continually shift. No matter how it is, I'm always thinking and feeling time/pulse/meter.

Rhythm is a Whole World of Its Own.

To me, there is so much to rhythm. Nothing I play is ever random. There is always a thought process behind every note, every strike of the mallet. There is always purpose to each note. Even in the midst of the most intense free improvisation, I am still thinking rhythm, still thinking about what I'm doing. 

This compares a lot to modern painting. For example, the late Jackson Pollock (not to put myself in the same league as Pollock). Many people look at his paintings saying, “My 5 year old could do that,” because to them, his paintings look like he randomly tossed paint on a canvas. Sure, a 5 year old could throw paint on a canvas, but it wouldn't result in what Pollock did. He worked for years to develop his art, to perfect his techniques. And the untrained eye may not notice the subtlety of what he did, but every motion he made was deliberate and backed up by years of study.

 Jackson Pollock at work

Jackson Pollock - Convergence

The Call of Melody

The other aspect of what I do is always thinking in terms of melody. I'm thinking of pairs of notes, or a succession of notes that create little melodies. As with rhythm, I don't just randomly play notes/pitches. I'm always looking to come up with interesting little melodies, even if just a 2 or 3-note melody. To me, a Meditation Session is a musical performance. That's how I approach it. So I'm always thinking music, melody, and harmony. I've moved past the idea of just serving up a big wash of sound. In many ways, I'm actively working to evoke a response from people, triggering impulses and memories, helping them recall moments lost in the past. (This is the idea behind my Stories We Tell Ourselves project)

And when I'm working with other musicians, I'm thinking of how my sounds fit and blend with the sounds and rhythms that are being created around me. Making my music a part of the whole is important to me. I never want to play and have it seem like a percussion solo with band accompaniment. 

So whether I'm leading the charge, or following someone else, I'm always thinking melodically and harmonically, to either blend my sounds into the proceedings, or to play something that will stand out in opposition to what is being played. For me, it's important to know the pitches/sounds of my instruments so I can react accordingly. In the session mentioned above, the challenge was to quickly learn & memorize what the basic sounds were of the instruments available, so that even then, I wasn't playing blindly.

Look before you leap. 

Think before you strike.


Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Monday, August 22, 2016

6 Thoughts About Your Practice

Someone had asked a question about how do you approach playing the Gongs/Bowls/Bells, especially for others. I came up with these basic thoughts:

  1. Always leave your ego at the door.
  2. Listen to your sounds more than anything else. They will always tell you what you need to know.
  3. Listen to/feel out the people you play for as they will tell you what they need.
  4. Explore your instruments and learn how to make good sounds.
  5. Study, read, listen, learn, repeat. It's a lifelong process and you will never know it all, but keep learning and improving.
  6. Stay humble.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Monday, August 15, 2016

From Here To Eternity: Parallel Paths

Everything in life is a personal journey, and no 2 person's journeys are the same. We can talk and write about it all we want, but our journey always remains our own, because we see and experience it from the inside, while others only see outward manifestations of our experience. Life is very much like watching a film. We can experience the story the film is telling, but we can't experience being the actors making the film.

Walking the Path

It is much the same with sound. As players, we each have our own, unique journey making the sounds. And as listeners, we each have our own unique experience hearing the sounds. The player cannot have the same experience as the listener. So too, no 2 listeners can have the same experience. We can all have similar experiences, but not the same. 

Don't ever assume that what you are experiencing is the same as others.

This blog is about my journey. You may have similar experiences, you may have completely different experiences—it is my hope that we can always find common ground. It is the same when I play for others. I always hope that we can meet somewhere and share part of what is happening, yet I want each person to have their own, personal experience. This is the reason I never tell people what to expect, or dictate to them what will happen (the exception would be a guided Yoga Nidra session or similar).

The other side of this is that I never know what I am going to do! There are things that I often repeat, but I don't have a set list or a plan. So how can I tell others what to expect?

Walk your path. Let others walk their's. Celebrate them both.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Art of The Practice

Being one with the sound. Losing yourself in the vibrations. These are noble aspirations, but are they practical and attainable? Yes, you can find a way to merge with the sound. In this blog post, we will look at various steps to deepen your practice of playing Gongs/Bowls/Bells, whether for yourself, or for others.


It all starts with the breath. While breathing is perfectly natural, when we are often trying to do something, it becomes unnatural. I have found that many times when a student is trying to accomplish something new or difficult, the first thing they do is hold their breath, or at least alter their breathing pattern. The minute you hold your breath, you introduce tension into your body. The longer you hold your breath, the more the tension builds up, until you finally have to quickly suck in another breath, and then the whole process starts over.

Before you start your practice, relax and take a deep breath. Let it out fully and then take another. As you let each breath out, let your tensions, worries, and monkey mind go out with the breath. And most importantly, let go of any expectations you may have. Keep breathing like this until you are ready to play.

Letting Go

Goals, expectations, destinations, these are all fine to have, but when you enter your practice, they often become distractions. Monkey mind will be chattering, How far have we gone?, or, How far do we have to go yet? This is living in the past, or living in the future, and neither one of those exist. You live in the moment. Let go of all expectations.

Be Present

The moment. The now. This is all that exists for each of us. While we can yearn for a future, yearn for a goal or destination, we cannot touch it or experience it, we can only experience what is here and now. Don't let yourself get caught up in the past or future at the expense of the now. Let yourself go and be in the moment. Feel your breathing. Feel your heart beat. Feel your surroundings. The more you are in the moment, the more you can experience the vibrations.

Be Open

Along with letting go, be open for whatever presents itself. Again, if you have no expectations, then you allow things to happen. Listen to the sound. Follow the sound. I am often surprised by the sounds that emanate from my instruments. They make me smile and whisper in my ear, “Come with me.” They are sounds that I would not consciously make if I was focused on a specific destination. And because of that, they take me to realms I never would have discovered.

Be Joyful

You play the Gong. No one says, “I work the Gong.” It is a joy to enter the vibrations and lose yourself. It is joyful to play for others and share this feeling. Be joyful, be grateful. 

Keep Breathing

Keep breathing. If you get tired, or stressed, or lose focus, come back to the breath. This has saved me many times. And not just in playing Gongs, but in life. Breathe consciously. Breathe with a focus and clarity. When you are having problems, check your breath. Proper breathing helps align us physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Don't forget to breath.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Zazen of Sound



(in Zen Buddhism) deep meditation undertaken whilst sitting upright with legs crossed

After writing assorted blog posts about the Zen of sound, various people have asked me about how they can get deeper into the sound, deeper into their own playing. So I've decided to offer some suggestions that have worked for me, but realize that each of us is different, so you will most surely find your own way.

Say Hello To The Sound
  1. Turn off your phone/computer/electric distractions.
  2. Make sure the kids, pets, other family members cannot disturb you.
  3. Make sure you are comfortable sitting or standing in front of your instrument/s. Because of my set up, I always stand.
  4. For a Gong, strike it gently in the center, getting a full, focused tone. For a Bowl or Bell, strike it gently on the side/edge to get a clear, yet pleasing sound. This exercise is not about loudness.
  5. Listen to the sound as it fades away.
  6. Be patient and let the sound fade completely away.
  7. When you feel you have waited long enough, wait a bit longer.
  8. Then strike the Gong/Bowl/Bell again, repeating the listening and waiting above. Make each strike consistent and like the last.
  9. Through all of this, be aware of any other sounds, like your heart beating, your breathing, your nervous system humming, any room sounds or outside sounds, such as traffic, jets, or dogs barking. Let these sounds blend in and become a part of your practice.
  10. Keep breathing and be aware of your breath—don't hold it.
  11. When you listen, don't focus on the sound as much as let the sound become a part of you.
  12. Listen with your ears and your body. You can feel the vibrations as much, or more, than hearing them.
  13. Each time you play a sound, try to wait just a bit longer before playing the next sound.
  14. If you have more than one instrument, alternate playing them.

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all. 
John Cage

Learning to listen and experience sound is no different from any other activity. You need to do this everyday for 10, 15, or more minutes. A big part of this is developing a relationship with sound/your sounds, and a trust in both you experiencing things, and in your abilities to play and control your instruments. It's important that if you hear a sound you like, that you can recreate it at will. 

Other benefits of this exercise are learning to control your stroke each time you play your instrument/s. I spend a lot of time playing my instruments in different spots with different mallets in order to learn about how many different sounds I can create and, most importantly, what sounds I can use. It's important to me to be able to recreate these sounds as needed when playing for others. It's too easy to let yourself go with just one, basic sound. 

There are no shortcuts to getting a good sound.

It's also important to learn how your instrument/s respond to your touch. Two different people playing the same instrument will most likely bring out different sounds, because they each have a different touch, different approach. You need to work at learning your touch and how your own personal instruments react to that touch. 

Rainer Maria Rilke


    No longer for ears . . . : sound
    which, like a deeper ear,
    hears us, who only seem
    to be hearing. Reversal of spaces.
    Projection of innermost worlds
    into the open . . . , temple
    before their birth, solution
    saturated with gods
    that are almost insoluble . . . : Gong! 

    Sum of all silence, which
    acknowledges itself to itself,
    thunderous turning within
    of what is struck dumb in itself,
    duration pressed from time passing,
    star re-liquified . . . : Gong! 

    You whom one never forgets,
    who gave birth to herself in loss,
    festival no longer grasped,
    wine on invisible lips,
    storm in the pillar that upholds,
    wanderer's plunge on the path,
    our treason, to everything . . . : Gong! 

    Rainer Maria Rilke

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™