It is an understatement to say that learning how to play the gongs is unique. In many, maybe most, ways it is very different from learning other sorts of musical instruments.
For example, if you were to learn piano, typically you would get lessons from a piano teacher. Of course, you actually don’t need to get lessons to play the piano. You can go it alone, and I wouldn’t think it was the worst idea. If you were serious about it, you could create a whole new style just playing ‘what feels right.’
But the thing is, if you wanted to play piano like Thelonious Monk, or Glenn Gould, you could get a lot of help from other piano teachers.
Not really so with the gongs.
It is weird, because even though gongs are thousands of years old, the way they are being played in a gong bath meditation is super new. As far as I know, and please correct me if I am wrong (and I very well may be wrong here…it is a common occurrence in my life to think I am discovering ‘America’ when in fact it had been discovered long ago.)
As far as I know, playing the gongs for an hour while someone is lying down, getting bathed in the sound, is a relatively new phenomenon. For me it feels a little like the wild west. You can only learn so much from other gong players…and I have done this. After that, you are on your own. At least in my case – and by choice – I have been on my own…with no direct teachers who play the gongs in such a way that I want to play them.
I am blessed with a clear vision of what I want, musically speaking, and I haven’t found another gong player who wants the same thing, exactly. So I have had to go it alone, and my main teacher is the gongs themselves, and lots of totally unrelated things which I apply to my gong playing. This works well for me, because I am a great learner by analogy. I can take a concept in one area of study and see how I can apply it to a seemingly unrelated area, my approach to gong playing. I will save an exploration of non-gong playing influences on my gong playing for another article.
One of the results of this go it alone practice is that so far, I have no musical mentors who are gong players!
Still, I wanted a mentor. I felt I could get better in ways, I wasn’t quite aware of. I needed somebody to talk with. Somebody who had proven themselves to me in a way, I could, creatively, musically, speaking, respect. I had to look outside the field of gong playing to find a musical mentor.
Well I found such a person.
Enter Mark Deutsch.
He is an incredibly accomplished musician, and he is way more than that. I would describe Mark, in the little I know of him, as a person who understands that his greatest musical skill is his sensitivity, his awareness. He is a maverick who has invented his own instrument, plays in his own style, and his style resonates with me. He plays beautifully… Beautifully in a way that I feel is beautiful.
Have a listen to this:
I’ve been connected with Mark for about three or four years now over Facebook, but I never had the courage, or maybe it just wasn’t the right moment, to contact him until recently.
I asked him if he would be willing to meet ‘for a chat.’ He was super gracious and agreed.
Boy, am I glad he did. I couldn’t believe the quality of our conversation. I found myself talking about super specific details about my approach to the gongs, and what blew me away was that Mark understood me. It was like I knew this language that only I knew and then I met a person who could speak the same language.
He more than understood me. He added insights and ideas I could immediately apply to my approach; effecting a huge upgrade to my playing.
Three Insights that changed my gong playing and approach to gong playing.
1. The blindfold
In our conversation he talked about using a blindfold while practicing his instrument, and how that created a greater sense of feeling, and also more sensitive hearing. This idea was not totally new to me. I used to sometimes play blindfolded with the saxophone, but I was a bit intimidated to try this with the gongs…
There’s a huge difference between holding an instrument in your hands were you know exactly where the buttons are and you know exactly where to blow, and a gong where every location creates a different sound. More than this. I was afraid, I didn’t know the distance between myself and the gong except through site. So how was I to avoid smashing my hand or mallet into the gong?
It turned out, my fear was misplaced. It was easy to sense the distance without my eyes, in limited circumstances.
The result of playing with a blindfold: Oh my! It was like my powers of perception doubled instantly. I could hear subtle sounds I totally missed before. It was better than this. Without the need to see, I started to use the information I was getting from the feeling of my hand, holding the mallet as it vibrated from its interaction with the gong!
I became super sensitive to how the strike of the mallet vibrated in my hand and I started playing that vibration which created all kinds of new variations, and, maybe of greater importance, a greater sense of cohesion…One of the keys to my approach to the gongs is to create a single thread of sound (and silence) from beginning to end.
My philosophy is to create a unified experience where the listener/meditator, doesn’t have to recognize a new kind of sound. The goal is for the whole gong bath to be of one piece. The more unified I can make it, the more it actually flows, the happier I am. The blindfold approach gave me a whole new level to this continuity.
2. Develop the connection between hard and soft focus.
And then he talk to me about the relationship between hard focus and soft focus. At least this is how I took it.
Understanding the distinction of hard and soft focus and developing an appreciation for the power of soft focus is a true game changer, in any capacity of life.
In our current society, we are taught to value hard focus. Hard focus is one pointed focus. It is problem solving focus. It is you reading this WORD and noticing I used all upper case. It is the focus that can calculate 1+1. It is essential.
But there is another kind of focus, equally essential, but not valued as it should be. Soft focus. Soft focus is being aware of something without it taking a ‘top of mind’ position. It is soft in that it is not a problem solving focus, but more a passive, ‘taking in’ sort of focus. You hear it, see it, feel it, smell it, etc. and that is all.
How powerful is a cultivated soft focus? In my experience, it is the key to intuition; we notice things before we notice them, so to speak. It gives access to that quiet voice which is previous to emotion and can thus guide us creatively and sensitively.
Soft focus is how a mom (or dad :-)), can be making dinner in one room, while being aware of how the kids are doing in the other room.
Soft focus is the way, you know you need to change something in your approach BEFORE it becomes a problem. It is that important.
As applied to the gongs, I discovered that I could focus on the sound being created, while being aware of a quieter sound that wants to emerge. Also, I became aware of the subtle field of awareness in the room, that empowers me to play to the listening of the participants. This may sound somewhat esoteric, but I am convinced it is one of the reasons the gong baths have become ever more powerful in their effect.
Musically speaking, soft focus allows me to have a very hard focus on the present moment; like a cat focusing on a mouse hole, I could focus on the sound of the moment without worrying about what is to come, knowing that my soft focus will lead the way.
This was paradigm shifting to say the least.
Soft focus exercise.
a.) Look at your hand.
b.) Now look at anything in the room which is in the same direction of your hand, but further away.
c.) Now bring your awareness back to the hand, but also keep the attention on the object further away. At this point, you can say that your hard focus is on your hand, and your soft focus is on the further away object.
d.) Now bring your hard focus to that object, and notice that your hand is now in the soft focus.
Practice this with other senses too. Especially sound. If you practice this every day for a few minutes, you will gain a greater relationship with your soft focus; and thus, your creativity, sensitivity, problem solving, improvisation and intuition.
3. Find the zero point sound of each gong and respect that sound.
Mark also told me about an experience he had performing with a gong player, who we could call ‘a gong banger…’
This gong player had lots and lots of gongs, but his approach to playing was such that the sound came out discordant, and muddy. The gongs didn’t play well together, and, worse, the gong player didn’t seem to notice this, and so it wasn’t a good experience.
Mark then expanded on the theme. He mentioned that each gong has a zero point sound… This is the pure sound of the gong, and that this player was playing these gongs in such a way that the zero points were conflicting with each other creating a hodgepodge of muddy sounds …
Each zero point gong sound has its own color and if you don’t play the gongs with sensitivity, you end up creating a muddy color, just like if you were painting with watercolors, if you paint all the colors together, it ends up being a muddle of a puddle.
I thought a lot about this one…
And I thought about it as I was practicing and realized that the way I had my gongs configured, I was creating a little bit of mud, and needed greater clarity, some of the gongs had a greater affinity to other gongs, and less affinity to others, so I rearranged the configuration of gongs and voilà, things have never been so clear. I am now able to get more distinct groups of sounds, that actually work together and sound gorgeous.
When I think about it, It’s just amazing that all of this came from only one telephone conversation. I guess that it was so rich, because I was ready to receive the riches of someone else’s experience. At least, I can say for sure, I was ready for Mark, and the gong baths are better for it.