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Unbinding Habits

October 15, 2012

In order to grow we must change, adapt and create new ways of doing things. Whether it is arthritic fingers finding new ways to hold keys, or eating differently to avoid costly and life disrupting medications, our ability to develop new habits has a huge impact on our lifestyle.

A warm up game used by theatrical improvisers involves looking around a room and naming all the objects incorrectly. We look at a broom and call it “cat”, or look at the floor and call it “closet”. Labeling things allows us to take them for granted, which is useful sometimes. The downside is that we forget, or lose the ability to see what is really in front of us. People who play the above-mentioned game report being able to see the world around them with surprising clarity.

One of the exercises I did as a student was to name all the notes of the music I was playing. I would first sing and name all the highest notes, then do the same for the lowest notes and finish with what was in the middle. Proceeding with this activity, the white space on the paper appeared whiter, while the ink appeared darker. My perception altered with the increase in the quality of my attention.

Keeping your guitar playing fresh requires some surprise, and one way to achieve this is to de or re-tune your instrument. We relate to our instrument through comfortable physical patterns, but with a de or re-tuned guitar our bodies go through the same motions and produce unfamiliar sounds. They may be pleasant or unpleasant but if we search long enough we will find ways to make agreeable sounds by finding new finger patterns on the guitar. Modern steel string virtuosos do this regularly as a way to create new music for themselves. Learning means developing habits we can rely on, but taking things for granted means we can be trapped by those same habits.

Another way of creating new habits is the corrective pause. In this process we stop just before making an error, wait a moment, and play the subsequent passage correctly. Stopping the musical flow creates a physical tension in our body making the activity a little bothersome. Repeating the process, we gradually decrease the gap time until there is no interruption in the music, and no error either.

I have heard theatre improvisers say that you must never block a colleague’s invitation. There is not very much time in this kind of performance to think and act – so it is easy to see why a refusal could be dangerous – there might be no line and a skit could die. On the other hand, resisting clichés and tropes can keep us out of traps and allow us to stay fresh. In the words of Miles Davis, “ I listen for the first idea that comes into my head – don’t play it, I listen for the second idea that comes into my head – don’t play it, I listen for the third idea that comes into my head – don’t play it. I play the fourth one.” One of the reasons his music has stayed fresh all these years is the care he put into selecting his ideas.

Wisdom will tell us when to be comfortable with our patterns and when we need to develop new ones. Or you could follow the advice of Captain Beefheart and:
“Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a piece of multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.”

Nasreddin Hodja planted two onion bulbs; one, he said, was for himself, and the other was for Allah. All the onions from Allah’s stalk were to be given to the poor. Some time passed and the bulbs grew into two stalks. One day the Hodja went into his vegetable garden to pick two onions. He checked the stalk he had planted for himself, it had only empty, dried up bulbs. The one that was intended for Allah, however, was burgeoning with nice, large onions. He picked two onions from Allah’s share. As he was shaking the soil off of the onions, an earth-shattering thunderbolt came down.

`Is all this fuss worth two onions?’ the Hodja addressed the sky, `Here, I put them back, stop the racket!’

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