Musical Rhythm: Considering the Mind in Time

We, Alex W. Rodriguez and Joe Sorbara, have been doing some work around the idea of “practice,” particularly as the term is used in mindfulness mediation and musical communities. So, to begin, what do we mean when we say “practice”? There is, of course, a general “practice” of daily life that encompasses all that we do. This sense of “practice” seems to align with a general sense of one’s overall practice as a practitioner of a particular art or discipline according to which all that I do as a musician constitutes my “musical practice”. The idea most commonly attached to the term “practice” for musicians, though, has to do with the woodshed, with time set aside specifically for focused skills development. This is the sense of “practice” that aligns most with the simple description that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche offers (see video below) of meditation as a process of “familiariz[ing] our minds with something that’s helpful”. It would seem to follow that the object of meditation would necessarily be helpful precisely in the context of the more general practice of daily life and, in the specifically musical iteration of the idea, in the context of one’s overall musical practice.
 
The idea that what musicians call "woodsheding" is a kind of meditation opens up, we think, an interesting area of inquiry. We decided to experiment with this idea last Thursday as a part of the Time Forms conference at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec where we presented a simple musical technique—the articulation of a slow, steady pulse—as an object of meditation and then asked the participants to use that technique in the performance of a structured improvisation. In addition to our initial questions about the idea of “practice,” we were also attempting to speak to the conference’s main theme by asking if, by bringing awareness to our bodies and minds through the practice of meditating on the articulation of a simple pulse, we might learn something about how we experience time. Many of us take for granted that "clock-time" is always running in our midst, ticking and tocking on in equally measured durations we call seconds, minutes, hours. But do we really know what even a small duration such as a second feels like? And can we play it?
 
At the beginning of our talk, we handed out drumsticks to everyone in the room, turned on a metronome set to 40 beats per minute, and asked the participants to tap the stick on the back of a chair or on the floor in front of them along with the metronomic pulse. This would seem to be a simple task. As it turns out, though, it is very challenging. In fact, most of us couldn’t pull it off! We’d like to suggest here that one potential entry point for scholars and theorists interested gaining an understanding of time—and those interested in music especially—might be to work toward a physical, embodied experience of playing the kind of steady pulse that is the basis for so much of the music made throughout the world.
 
What we offer here is a set of instructions that, we hope, will allow anyone to begin a practice of becoming familiar with their minds in time. We continue by, first, describing the process that we went through with the conference participants in Montreal; then, providing a set of instructions—modified according to the lessons learned there—that we hope you can try on your own. If you do, please share your experience with the instructions in the comments section below.
 
Before we proceed, we’d like to mention that these ideas are rooted firmly in the teachings of the master drummer, Jim Blackley, with whom Joe studied for many years in Toronto and Barrie, Ontario, and Alex's experience with Shamatha meditation in the Shambhala tradition (again, see below for our suggested video on Shamatha meditation). 
 
Our presentation was divided into three ten-minute sections presented throughout the Thursday morning session of the Time Forms conference. We began by turning on a metronome providing a pulse at 40 beats per minute and presented the basic object of mediation: tap the drumstick along with a pulse sounded out by a metronome. After a few moments, we stopped the tapping and asked participants to mentally divide the pulse into two equal parts. We then reintroduced the tapping with the added instruction that the participants make an “up-stroke” precisely halfway between each tapped “down-stroke”. After repeating this for about a minute, we went on to divide the underlying grid of the exercise into three and then four divisions of the basic 40 bpm pulse with the up-stroke always made on the division immediately preceding the down-stroke. Throughout, we asked the participants to try and bring their awareness to their body moving the drumstick in time with both the metronome’s continuous click and their mental subdivisions of it.
 
One of the interesting things about the Time Forms conference was that improvising musicians had been invited to interpret a graphic score in the back of the room while some of the presentations took place---these additional sounds made it much more challenging to hear and articulate the pulse clearly.
 
In the second section, we began by turning on the metronome again and spent about two minutes meditating on the pulse, mentally dividing the time into three. After that, we invited the group to perform a structured improvisation based on “Click Piece” from John Stevens’ influential book of improvisation exercises, Search and ReflectWe provided a set of rules and constraints for when players could use their drumstick to contribute a click to the soundspace. The instructions turned out to be, perhaps, too complicated to grasp clearly in just a couple of minutes, though. During the first ten seconds of the piece there was a palpable sense of listening and intention in the room. After that, however, many participants chose to ignore the instructions and the sensation shifted into a more noisy and discursive soundscape for about a minute with many of the performers playing many more than their allotted nine clicks.
 
The third ten-minute presentation, given in the early afternoon, also began with the basic pulse meditation with the metronome on and the participants imagining an underlying metric grid that subdivided the main pulse in to three equal parts. We requested that the improvising musicians not play for a brief period in order to make it easier to hear the pulse---and for the first minute or so, they chose to heed our request. Then, one of the musicians performed an intervention, playing quietly in the room while we continued. The creative tension brought on by this intervention confirmed that the exercise is much easier to perform in a quiet space. After about three minutes of the meditation we played a shorter, simplified version of the modified "Click Piece" that was much more focused than our previous exploration; most likely due to our substantial simplification of the instructions.
 
Finally, we took questions from the audience for about five minutes. The musician who decided to play during the last exercise asked the first question, asking why her meditation had been censored. We responded that we had thought it would be much easier to bring awareness to the meditation exercise in a quiet space—and thanked her for confirming our hypothesis! Another participant shared that, in her experience, the kind of focus we were asking for seemed to give rise to a sense of being in community. Another participant found himself drawing his listening awareness away from his own mental pulse during the meditations and listening instead to the rest of the “swarm”. He observed that the sense of group-time or social time was very different from his experience "inside" his own individual time.
 
This experiment in aural and social time-perception taught us a lot about how the people in that room experienced time together. Perhaps the most significant insight we drew from this process was the realization that, despite what we thought were simple instructions, we were actually asking people to do something incredibly complex. We also assumed that people would give us the benefit of the doubt and follow our instructions, and yet a number of people plainly and unabashedly ignored them. Also, since our presentation was on the topic of time: each of those ten-minute sections went by incredibly fast!
 
Since we're working now in a different time medium, and have had the chance to reflect on our initial experiment, we’d like to offer the following refined set of instructions for meditating on a metronomic pulse. Please give it a try, and share your experience with this practice in the comment section below! We hope that, as more people try this out, we can gather more helpful information about this practice of becoming familiar with time.
 
A Meditation On/In Time:
 
-- Find a quiet place and listen to this basic mindfulness meditation instruction from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
 
 
-- Once you have settled into the posture and practice described in the video, set a metronome at 40 beats per minute.
 
-- Mentally articulate the pulse along with the metronome; that is, hear it in your mind's ear as it happens.
 
-- Now, with one hand, tap with the pulse; either with a drumstick or mallet on a surface. Tap your hand lightly on your lap if these implements aren’t available.
 
-- Continue to articulate the click in mind's ear, but stop tapping with the pulse.
 
-- Subdivide the pulse into 3 equal parts mentally, hearing the first subdivision along with the metronome’s click and the second and third subdivisions as quieter echoes of the click.
 
-- Physically articulate the pulse as follows:
- perform a down-stroke with the click,
- hold your stick or hand just above the playing surface for the second part of the beat,
- perform an up-stroke on the third part of the beat, raising your stick or hand to point toward the ceiling,
- perform another down-stroke with the next click,
…and so on.
 
We have included a video below of Joe performing this action, so that you have a reference point:
 
 
-- Continue this process until you get bored. Notice your boredom and then let that thought go, continue for at least one additional minute. 
 
-- As you continue the action, move your attention from the physical process of playing the pulse back to your breath as described in the meditation video. You may notice that you falter in performing the action at this point. If so, practice transitioning your awareness from the hand action to the breath.
 
-- Once you are comfortable with the transition, work on a further transition from your breath to your mental articulation of the pulse and its subdivisions.
 
-- Now continue cycling your attention between these three aspects of the meditation: your breath, the physical articulation of the pulse and its subdivisions, and the mental articulation of the pulse and its subdivisions.
 
-- Eventually, place your attention on the combined experience of all three aspects.
 
-- After doing this for a few days, once you are completely comfortable and perhaps bored with these instructions, set your boredom aside and continue the practice for at least another day. Then, to add complexity, try subdividing the basic pulse into other underlying grids (2 or 4 or 5 subdivisions, for example). Always perform your up-stroke on the subdivision immediately preceding the click.
 
[A reminder: throughout this process, your mind will wander towards other thoughts. This is normal. Part of the practice is consistently returning your attention to the instructions.]
 
Contemplating how to present this exercise has given us a little window into just how complicated and detailed our mind's relationship with time can be. We hope that you try this out and share your experiences in the comments section below. It will be interesting to find out how familiarizing yourself with this practice is helpful to you.

 

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