Stepping into Funk

Through my piano, composition, and Alexander Technique lessons, my goals were to develop a new style of workflow composition which captured ideas I had as fast as possible, so that I could move onto later stages of composition more quickly, and to be able to play with the freedom I could muster in a music ensemble. The Kawai ES8 Digital Piano that I eventually decided to purchase was extensively used throughout my project to develop composition ideas and practice set lists in apartment settings where nearby access to a decent piano was out of the question, and headphone use was strictly enforced. Due to the injuries I sustained, the scope of the project changed fundamentally, from results oriented to learning more and becoming a better human being.

I learned that thinking too much confuses the mind and makes my tension worse. Through my lessons, I came to realize that after a couple of iterations of mentally thinking about the process, the body must be the one to take up motions and knowledge and turn that into music. Secondly, I became acutely aware of the amount of physical tension I was holding as a result of my perfectionism, anxiety, and unconscious repressed emotion. By letting those things go through use of the Alexander Technique, QiGong meditation in Kung Fu, mindfulness, Sarno’s MindBody approach, Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I realized that the body holds tension to distract us from thinking about the problems we’re having in our minds because it deems that they are too scary to deal with. I was able to progress quite a bit by switching up my approach between different philosophies and attacking the issue from multiple different angles. I learned how powerful attachment and judgment of thoughts could be. As I improved my mental hygiene, I began to notice dramatic improvements in my quality of life and overall mood, which helped me play much more expressively and freely as a result.

Before dealing with my injuries became the main priority of my musical pursuits, I always moved quickly from event to event in my life, with a mind so cluttered that I couldn’t sit down and not do anything without feeling overwhelmed and anxious. As a result, I kept working so that I wouldn’t have to think of anything. Combined with an attitude of setting unrealistic goals for myself and absolute perfection in whatever I was doing, it became very difficult to move forward. As I began to heal myself from my pain, I realized that a full change in my value system had to take place. I began to see “mediocre” work as “good enough” and learned that reasonable time and energy limits to several tasks that required a lot of concentration did indeed exist. Secondly, I became less anxious of the future by realizing that I am also defined by what I do, not only by what I think. Once I understood that all I must do is focus on today’s tasks that are achievable and realistic, and the rest will take care of itself, my concentration became much more narrow and I actually achieved more while being less tense and anxious.

Throughout Spring 2017, I played with a friend I met in the winter Alexander Workshop. We played a mixture of music improvisation bordering on jazz fusion, jazz, and blues. We also shared each other’s compositions and I learned a lot about how a singer-songwriter makes their music. The experience broadened my view of how music could be made, and that music could also not be taken as seriously, but could be just as fun. It was around this time that I realized that while I wanted to take my music seriously, the music-making process itself didn’t have to be as serious or restrained. As a result I loosened up and learned to have fun even if the theory behind the improvisation wasn’t very complicated or I didn’t play the perfect solo.

At the beginning of June 2017, I joined a funk group called “180 Funk and the Supreme Court Jesters.” While I was in Columbus taking classes Monday through Friday, I would drive to my hometown where practices for the group were held every Friday and Sunday. I also didn’t have much time to practice the set lists, which were fairly large (9 songs each). We had performances planned in mid-July, and set lists were announced a couple of weeks before the performance date was set. My experience with ear training and music theory was put to the test as frequently I had to listen to songs via offline playlist in my car as I drove to practice. I was also tasked by the leader to come up with ways to make the overall group sound warmer and fuller. I had to combine my knowledge of classical/jazz piano and music production to come up with ways to make the sound better. Many times I would transcribe the horn melodies and play them with both hands. As a result of all of this my ear became much sharper and my technique improved.

Secondly, my joining the group was purely by fluke, and the group leader emphasized that very serious commitment was only optional. I was able to practice taking one day at a time and trying just to be good enough. Many times I allowed myself to play what I could for however long I could, and I didn’t push myself beyond that. While progress was slower, it was meaningful. I was surprised to see that other group members were sympathetic and supportive of me as they knew the other activities I was involved in. At the beginning of practice, I didn’t really know how to play in the groove of each song very well, and I was so focused on playing my parts right, I barely even paid attention to the band sound. But as I practiced by listening to the songs more, I realized how I fit into the overall band sound and found myself not being able to hear individual parts anymore. It was also very enlightening playing with other people. I learned about other projects that musicians might pursue, got feedback from a lot of different sources, and met people with vastly different skillsets than mine.

I also jammed with 180 Funk’s drummer a few times over the summer, who is quite experienced and played in many bands. For most of my life, I had played music by myself, and as a result I kept learning theory and focused less on the actual function of each note and chord. A golden piece of advice I received from him was to not create complicated structures for songs, but to keep the structure and harmony simple, while adding in more complex things as a spice. This mindset opened my eyes to a whole new world of music that I had previously thought was uninteresting.

Firstly, I am now able to play piano and work with no pain, and limited capacity. The fact that I am able to function at all has tremendously impacted my quality of life. That combined with all that I have learned in the past two years has also given me the opportunity to enjoy and excel in very different fields while spending about the same amount of time on each activity as I did before. Music is more fun to me, and I enjoy the simpler things in life as a result of my experiences. It has also made me more focused. By focusing on things one day at a time and not worrying too much about the big picture, I’ve been able to get more done in a shorter time and churn out higher quality work. I understand my limits much more, and am more comfortable doing work that does not meet my perfectionist standards.

Here are some of the videos of the band and my recording over the summer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dd_K4yHF2TA — Recording session, Early May
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lb68WZy5_WE — Practice session, Mid June
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijrRqEF4pX4 — Gig #1, Late July
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_m5Fsjoki0 — Gig #2, Late July
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAI6Uey9pOM — Gig #2, Late July
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEnQZJ28WkU — Recording session, Late August