Life is music that must be performed

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 23, 2017 – 12:00am

There are many ways to describe life. We can be optimistic, pessimistic, didactic, light, heavy, etc. We can see it as happy, sad, crazy, profound. It is full of trials, or maybe abundant with blessings, a cup that is full, or empty. Life is a test, a challenge. Life can feel like a roll of the dice. It seems very random and meaningless. But no! To some, life is full of meaning. Some will say life is predetermined.

There is no limit to what we can say about life. There are as many opinions about it as there are people on earth. And everyone will probably be changing their assessment and description of life many times in their lifetime.

I would like to use the metaphor of the world of music to describe what life may be.
Life is music that must be performed. You are born with an audience waiting for you to do your thing. It may take you many years to write a song to express who you are, and practice it and hopefully be good at it. But be reassured (or terrified) that you have a slot in the program of life. It is already there waiting for you. It may not even be just one song or performance that will be required of you. It may be many.

The song that you will write and perform is something you will decide for yourself. Inspiration will come from all your experiences. Your background and upbringing will determine the style, the genre, mood and theme of what you will write.

So be prepared. Anything goes. Who knows? You may be called to write, say, a jazz piece.

If that is the musical performance you will do, know that you will be required to be “in the moment” and express yourself spontaneously. You will write and perform as you go along. You will make on-the-spot decisions on what notes to play, given the key, progression or flow that is life at the moment.

You will need to be totally immersed, concentrated and in full awareness as you ad-lib your way through the performance. It will demand that you come from everything you know in theory and things you’ve learned from practical living. You will be required to approach the piece with a boldness and audacity to risk and trust that you are making sense. And as you play, you will come from creativity, joy and lightness.

Or you could be playing classical music. You trained long and hard for this as a pianist. You may have memorized every note and have learned all the nuances of every part of the piece. You have practiced every day for years. You’ve put in so many hours for this that you can play it without the music charts in front of you. You have listened to the best classical performers playing this piece and through your mentors you have learned to come up with your own take on it. You have mastered the balance of technique and emotions. You are very ready. Hopefully all the players in the orchestra are ready as well.

You are performing at a venue with a reputation for showcasing the best talents. You are a bit nervous but you are confident that you will do well. Your name has been introduced. You march in to applause and you sit on the piano chair and begin.

You could be a famous pop artist. You’ve played countless gigs everywhere. You’ve experienced small and large venues, met hundreds and thousands of people, sold a lot of records. You’ve earned your chops and managed to be “in the zone” during most performances. Good for you. You know hundreds of songs and from experience you know which hit song to sing that will wow a crowd.

While it took years of hardship playing gigs wherein the audience was oblivious to what you played, you now enjoy the attention and respect of a large fan base that fanatically supports you. Everything you do is appreciated and wildly applauded.

Or you could be a new artist on the make. Sometimes, the venue is not that great, and the gig is not a big one. It may not even be prestigious. It could be a small venue or even a begging job singing on the street with your guitar case open for tips and donations.

But hey, there is still an audience, however small, to play for, thank God. You will still play your heart out. You live for those who stick around long enough to watch you sing a song or two, or three, and leave something.
You trust that someone out there could be listening very intently and is inspired at what he/she is listening to. To that person, your performance matters a lot. You are touching their heartstrings and bringing them to a state of beauty and aesthetics that brightens their boring lives. Just for that, you give it all you’ve got.

In this metaphor of life as musical performance, what is clear is that somehow, you will be called to show your talent and you must play the music that makes sense to you the most. Your performance is your moment of truth sharing.

But whatever metaphor you use, it is clear that the biggest requirement of life is it must be lived. I am not trying to trivialize it. You must show up for life because if you don’t, there is no life to talk about. Nothing happens.

And because you do show up, other people will be affected in some way by your presence. Hopefully, the effect is something that will enrich them in many ways. So show up for that slot that is there for you. And play the most beautiful, richest music that you have made. Write and learn a lot of songs. Perform them to the best of you abilities. That is the meaning of life!

Defying death

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 16, 2017 – 12:00am

We are always wishing for redemption stories or outcomes. When someone is sick, we pray they get well. When someone is troubled or depressed, we want them to feel better and live more positive and happy lives. When something is broken, we want it fixed. When something is not right, we want to make it right.

We value wellness, the restoration of things that have gone bad from good. We value continuity and expanded opportunities to partake of the good things in life. And when we already have them, we wish that things do not change. But if they must, it should be in the direction of growth towards greater opportunities that will make our lives even better.

The meaning of the Resurrection is to bring back the good from the side of the bad. In this case, it is to bring the dead back to life and to make them live eternally. That is its promise.

To defeat death is one of mankind’s primordial yearnings. Death, as we have been told, is an inevitability. That’s what history and time have told us, and it has been proven time and again. So far!

In college, I read a paper by a philosopher who dared look at death as a possibility instead of a forgone conclusion. I can no longer remember the writer of the essay but the premise struck me as bold, daring and defiant.

Much scientific, social and medical efforts are being taken in this direction and man’s longevity has improved dramatically in the past 100 years.

It used to be that when I woke up, I thought of the next 24 hours as something that brought me closer to death. But almost every day now, when I wake up, I chuckle because I know that, so far, I have defied death. My being alive proves it! It sounds funny but it is true that I have been successful so far!

This got me thinking that while I am literarily alive and defying death as of now, I must still consider the possibility of dying someday. And yes, I am stubbornly using the word “possibility” and not “inevitability.” Not yet. I will interchange these two words when I start to see that death is imminent.

But whether it happens or not, every person must think of what he wants to leave the world. It is true that every person wants to shape the world in his own image and likeness, for good or for bad. And this is where we go back to where I started in this article.

We must actively create redemption stories and narratives in the way we live our lives. We must bet on values that make redemption stories more possible and be living examples of them.

In this age of extreme polarities, we must side with the good. Our values must defy the culture of death that promotes hunger, sickness, starvation, addiction, anti-people policies that promote extra judicial killings and allow refugees to die at sea while trying to escape persecution and build a new life.

We must fight for truth and goodness that benefits mankind. This suggests a host of things we can do, like comforting the sick, educating the ignorant, feeding the hungry, uplifting the lives of the poor and the wretched, and creating a more inclusive world where everyone can enjoy a great degree of equality, equity and the good life.

We must promote these values so they become an integral part of our existence and the way we understand what it means to be human.

What kind of people must we become then? We must have tolerance, patience and compassion for others, and for ourselves. We must try to continuously create happiness not just for us but for everyone. We must be purposeful so that every day’s effort is valuable and the days we spend are worth living.

Truth, honesty, love, wishing people well and promoting goodwill in our daily transactions will push falsehoods, ill intentions, threats to life, bullying and manipulation into a smaller corner or sphere of influence.

By defying death, we become the light in the darkness, promoting inclusivity, fairness and love. When we make life worth living for us and for everyone, we are living the Resurrection.

Happy Easter!

10,000 hours

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 9, 2017 – 12:00am

Writer Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book Outliers writes about the “10,000-hour Rule,” where he posits that to be able to achieve expertise in any skill, one must spend at least 10,000 hours practicing. He cites the Beatles as an example. The group spent so much time in Hamburg, Germany doing about eight sets a night that they could perform their songs without much effort.

Talking with my sister Lory over dinner about how much music we have listened to since we were very young, she reminded me of Gladwell‘s theory. Yes, surely we spent a great deal of time listening to music. I remember having 78 RPM records at age three and my sister and I would play them on a phonograph that an uncle made for us. We would play our records for hours and hours.

Later, my dad invested in a good Hi-Fi set, as it was called back then. I was still below six years old and I had memorized the soundtrack of West Side Story. We listened and sang with records of the Kingston Trio, a lot of Broadway musicals, Elvis, Gogi Grant, Danny Kaye and a whole lot more. It seemed like music was everywhere around us. It is no wonder we sang together as a family.

We probably ended up learning music theory without having to study it. We could sing hundreds of songs. I even memorized the musical arrangements of most of them that I would also sing them with the lyrics and melodies. Just by listening to a lot of great music, I must have imbibed song structures, lyrical rhymes, and varied tastes from rock’n’roll to classical, pop to jazz, from the popular to the sophisticated.

And then there were the lyrics written with passion, skill, and style. Some were so poetic and elegant I fell in love with them.

I invited the talented jingle writer Mike Villegas to give a talk to my class on songwriting, describing his music process. He said that he uses a little mathematical-like formula to come up with melodies. It involves the scale and the notes that fit into certain chords. It was quite interesting and it helped my class understand songwriting better.

As I listened to Mike, I knew that what he was talking about was pretty intuitive to me. I just Knew it, probably because of the thousands of hours of music I have listened to and played in my life. I have a developed sense of what comprises good, well-written music and songs. I just know a good melody when I hear one, and I can even change the chords in my head to make the song sound different.

At a songwriting workshop where Mike and I participated, he said he was amazed that I and singer-songwriter Ebe Dancel would tell our students to simply go to the garden and write a song. He was totally impressed at how some people can make songs out of thin air. Of course, not all songs written that way are good songs. But it works for me. I have a full library of references that I have been listening to since childhood, and it has honed my intuition about what a good song is.

The 10,000 hours theory makes sense. When you do something as often as that, it sharpens your skills and heightens your perceptions and insights into what you are repeatedly doing. It is like total immersion. You marinate in the universe of your practice and master most of its secrets. My sister says she sees images when she listens to melodies. I see colors for certain chords and I have these feelings when I hear some songs and chord progressions.

You are a citizen of the universe you live in. In my case, I look at my universe of music as having contours like a geographical spread. It has colors and images. I also see and hear music as something that is alive, dynamic and full of emotions. It even has a rationality to it.

The idea behind the 10,000 hours of practice theory or exposure to a field of knowledge or interest is to make you so good that even on your bad day, you are anything but bad.

When APO used to do many shows, we actually felt we got better and better as we went along. Our harmonies were cleaner. There was less effort hitting notes and singing lines in unison. When we sang our own songs, we realized an emotional depth and understanding that we didn’t know was there when we wrote them. Even the comedy we did onstage was more relaxed, natural and funny. And more enjoyable to do.

If you want your children to love music — or any other thing, or that matter — start them early. Expose them to songs that are not from their generation. Give them variety and help them appreciate material from different eras and in different genres. There are simply many more good songs from past generations than what the kids are listening to these days.

Use the reset button

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 2, 2017 – 12:00am

Life can get difficult. The money chase can put so much pressure on a person, it may seem like his whole life’s purpose is about earning money.

You need money to pay the rent or amortization, to feed the family, to send kids to school, to live a good life. And so you work and work because that is how you can pay the bills and have some surplus money for the future.

Modern life can pull you every which way. There is the pressure to earn, to conform, to constantly compete, to succeed, to be politically correct. There is also traffic, pollution, and the stream of life on hyper speed. Everything but the traffic seems to be moving too fast. There is no rest anywhere.

There are ways to deal with things when they become unbearable. Some may be good but some may also be harmful. Let’s start with what is harmful.

There are things you can take into your body that can deaden the pain you may be feeling. There’s alcohol, different types of drugs, and food that will make you feel good even for a while. But to keep on relying on these to help you cope is unsustainable and unrealistic.

There are other distractions like gambling, sex, and the constant pursuit of activities that excite you enough to keep altering your mood. John Bradshaw, a psychologist who writes about addictions, says that anything we do regularly that is mood altering can be addictive. Too much of anything can be bad for you. Below, he talks about, and this will surprise you, religious addiction. Yes, there is such a thing.

“The feeling of righteousness is the core mood alteration among religious addicts. Religious addiction is a massive problem in our society. It may be the most pernicious of all addictions because it’s so hard for a person to break his delusion and denial. How can anything be wrong with loving God and giving your life for good works and service to mankind?”

I don’t intend to start a discussion on religion here. Bradshaw’s point is, anything in great excess can be addictive.

There are positive ways we can reset ourselves and make us feel refreshed and ready to go back to the battlefield of daily living. All the practices that can help us cope with life in ways that won’t hurt us have something to do with going inside ourselves. But to do so, we must be able to empty ourselves so that new energy can come in.

Below are some “reset buttons” you can use to get your energy back:

1. Exercise. At any age, exercise is beneficial to your health and well-being. Physical activity makes you come alive and aware of your own body. It’s great to release the endorphins that exercise brings. Your body, with its emotions, feelings and drives, is your way of experiencing life and the world. Include yoga, tai chi, and other physical-mental disciplines.

2. Meditation. Meditation in and of itself is a good thing. You don’t need a reason to do it but it will help you. All there is to meditation is to be aware of everything that is happening as you sit quietly. It does not demand that you be analytical, defensive, or anything. All it asks is that you allow yourself to be free and observe everything that is coming and going without attachment or self-interest. Let your thoughts, opinions, and biases come and go. Somewhere, sometime during constant meditative practice, your authentic self will appear. Life will still be the same with all the good and bad in it, but you will have changed and found your power to let go.

3. Stop social media from taking over your life. Sure, our friends are there and that’s where we catch up with them. But virtual life is not real life. In real life, you talk to people and interact with them more completely. You can’t mute or block them instantly. You come present as you are. You show up to real life.

Every once in a while, it is beneficial to disengage from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. and live the way humanity did from the beginning of time up to around 10 years ago when the smart phone took over our lives. If you give more of your time and energy to virtual life, your real life may suffer immensely. Talk, shake hands, hug, laugh, tell stories, express opinions spontaneously while facing a real person.

4. Keep a journal. Writing can help you get in touch with who you are and give you a sense of being centered. Getting to know and becoming clear to yourself can help you find your life’s purpose. The world is a confusing place but you can know yourself well enough not to get lost.