Monday, October 20, 2008

Tell Tale Signs

As I sit here typing, I'm listening to a Bob Dylan marathon via streaming audio. I've been a Bob Dylan fan for years. When I was in the sixth grade, I began to learn to play the guitar as an aspiring "folkie." I could play and sing "Blowin' In the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," and other songs that stirred my WASPy Midwestern suburban pre-pubescent heart. I was taking piano lessons and singing in choirs, beginning down the long road of classical music training, but something about Bob Dylan's music grabbed me. I loved his poetry; and his voice, with all its limitations, captivated me. I was one intense eleven-year-old.

"Tell Tale Signs" is the latest in a series of releases of previously unavailable recordings by Bob Dylan. The two-disc set includes bootleg recordings from live performances, as well as outtakes and other "first approximations" from the recording studio over the past 20 years. It's some good listening, and Bob Dylan still fascinates me. His career has spanned more than 50 years, and he continues to write, perform, and tour. He has new things to say that are worth listening to. He continues to grow, explore, and transform himself and the culture.

Recording brings out the perfectionism in people. I confess to needing a couple of "takes" to get my outgoing voice mail message just right. Recordings of performances have an archival quality, and you know when you're making one that it will be preserved for posterity. We try to be extra good, to hit it out of the park every time, so to speak. We become self-conscious, awkward, stumbling around. A bootleg recording, however, captures something immediate, fresh, and real. The recorder surreptitiously captured the artist in her natural state, going about her business, unpreoccupied by the demands of perfection. We can see, hear, and feel the "Tell Tale Signs" that something special is going on. Small wonder that we treasure these recordings as representative of an artist's best work.

You probably agree that it's hard to do your best work when you are self-conscious. Legion are the theatrical productions that give their best performance at the dress rehearsal, when no critics are present. But self-consciousness is not the same as self-awareness. Self-consciousness makes you worry about the judgment of others, constantly compares you with someone or something else, and takes you out of the present moment. Self-consciousness has its own "Tell Tale Signs;" it makes you stilted, stiff, and uninspired. Self-awareness, on the other hand, allows you to respond spontaneously to whatever is before you. Self-awareness elicits the peaceful, yet energized, flow of attention, expression, and creativity.

The work of Moshe Feldenkrais offers the opportunity to transform self-consciousness into self-awareness. When you experience yourself moving effortlessly, with comfort, ease, and grace, it's almost like having a "bootleg recording" of yourself, capturing your individual genius. My students often say, "WOW! I had no idea I could do THAT!" This ability to see yourself in a new way makes the "recordings" dynamic and alive, rather than static. Feldenkrais knew that we can't learn, adapt, or attain our full potential when judgment and self-consciousness take us out of the present moment.

Don't be afraid: you don't have to aspire to nirvana-like states of awareness perfection to benefit. Even small, incremental improvements in your awareness can lead to surprising returns. The dawning awareness inspires you to go deeper, broader, more specific, more general, to find what else might be possible. Rather than being pressured from the outside to accomplish something, the rewards come from within. It reminds me of a few lines from the old Kathy Mattea song:

Now here is the one thing I keep forgetting
When everything is falling apart
In life there's enough no I need to remember
There's such a thing as trying too hard

You have to sing (sing) like you don't need the money
Love (love) like you'll never get hurt
You gotta dance, dance, dance like nobody's watching
Its got to come from the heart if you want it to work . . .

Frequently, Moshe Feldenkrais would instruct his students to move in such a way "as if it didn't matter." I think that's the equivalent of "dance like nobody's watching." In that atmosphere of freedom, the "Tell Tale Signs" of your own brilliance begin to emerge.

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Siren said...

You, an intense 11 year old? Really? How surprising! :)

Anonymous said...

I remember a man approaching me after I gave a successful workshop that covered some tough issues. "You do this work without effort." I smiled inside and thought of the countless hours and years of preparation and practice so that I could appear easy going and tuned to the group. Each step is a journey to perfection of one kind or another. It's sometimes hard to be patient.

Anonymous said...


That post really hit the spot. Soooo true about recording self
conciousness. So many hours spent in the recording studio TRYING to
get it to swing. To play a "good solo". It takes a while to learn
that extra caring about what people think gets in the way. Feeling
how the effort narrows attention down to listen mostly to me, to
make sure my part is acceptable. Then taking a breath and asking,
what is going on with the music that is happening now? Hearing how
the piano is phrasing his lines, where the drummer feels the beat,
letting the listening to the sound of the group play the music. In a
way it is easy!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts so generously Mary Beth, and
listening too!

Anonymous said...

Dear MaryBeth:

I too have been a huge Dylan fan since the first 1962 LP. I even bought the CD versions of all my favorite Dylan LP's over the years.
I have been fortunate in that as a member of a number of symphony orchestras I have made over 50 recordings of classical works (as well as videos and CD's and the weekly radio broadcasts on KUHF) and have been able to hear myself. Its continues to be a learning experience even after 34 years of performing in orchestras. The bad thing is that it feeds on my obsessive perfectionism. But, I may have told you this before, I heard an interview with Renata Tebaldi a few years prior to her death. She mentioned she was so hard on herself as an artist that she never listened to any of her recordings. This is a woman who was arguably one of the greatest sopranos ever and recorded more than 80 operas! I was impressed seeing one of the final interviews with Paul Newman. He too had a true artist's perspective on things. He said woefully that if he had it to do over he would have done many things differently in Cool Hand Luke and The Hustler. And here we thought all of these years, "how could these performances have possibly been any more perfect?"
Send me more words that will help me gain a sense of balance as an artist. Be well.

Anonymous said...

I'm also a big Dylan fan and one of the things I've noticed about him over the last 45 years is his refusal to be pinned down and categorized. If he becomes known as one thing ("folk singer"), he becomes something else. If his style is said to be a certain thing ("Christian"), he changes it. He demonstrates a desire and need to change in order to battle expectations. Although he went through an artistic low period, especially in performances, for the past 15 or 20 years he's been back on the beam, touring almost constantly and writing and singing some of his best albums. Yet, he is not a perfectionist; he goes for feel, meaning, and communication and at this stage he definitely moves with "ease, comfort, and grace," If one has listened to his last 4 CDs, including Tell Tale Signs, one cannot help but notice he avoids self-consciousness and embraces self-awareness.

He and Moshe would have gotten along well. Good post!