Tao 1–What Is the Tao?

Tao 1–What Is the Tao?
I wrote these words in 1999: “As a new year begins, I am going to begin doing something that I have been thinking about doing for a long time. This may seem strange to many people. In fact, it seems a little strange to me. I want to write a small book entitled The Tao of the Mandolin. And I want to write it to you, Comandos of the world. Once a week, I will write whatever I can see or think of or feel about the connection between the Tao and the instrument we play or build or are interested in. I hope this does not offend anyone. In a sense, Taoism is a religion, but I am certainly not proselytizing for it. In fact, those who follow the Tao shun such actions. I see the Tao as more of a philosophy, and that’s the way I’m treating it here. I guess an alternative title for my little book-to-be could be The Philosophy of the Mandolin. If that title is more palatable, you could think of it that way. I will try to write one entry a week, for 52 weeks. If I can keep up, I will have written my small book by the end of the year.”

Comando, an email discussion list that focuses on the mandolin, was the original site of my little book, which I did finish. I posted most of it to a website, but a virus destroyed much of it several years ago. From time to time, someone asks me what happened to “The Tao of the Mandolin,” and I always promise to get it back up on the web. So here it is, in a new form, and in a forum that can be interactive. Now, back to The Tao of the Mandolin, as written in 1999:

I now begin the little book I have been planning for several years to write. It is called The Tao of the Mandolin, and this is the way it begins.

What is the Tao? Many prefer not to translate the word, feeling that to translate the Tao is to reduce it. The Tao te Ching begins this way: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” So any effort to explain or define would be a failure. Another tactic is to translate it with many different words: path, way, road, course, principle, doctrine. Or a master might illustrate the Tao by telling a story or drawing a picture. A man is walking down a path. He has always been walking the path. He will always walk the path. This is the Tao, both the path and the walking of the path. I will try all these ways of answering the question anyone reading this might naturally ask: “What is the Tao of the Mandolin?”

First answer: I will not answer. Look at your mandolin. Hold it. Strum a chord. Play a tune. Do that every day. Do it for the rest of your life. That is the Tao of the mandolin. If you don’t understand that answer, you do not understand the Tao. If you do understand it, you already know the Tao of the mandolin, and you don’t need to read this book!

Second answer: just as the Tao can be translated with many words, the Tao of the mandolin can be translated. Today I am thinking that the fretboard is the Tao. It is a road, a path, with markers, and boundaries, and it goes on and on very far. Your fingers travel the path, the way. Playing a tune is a little journey on the fretboard.

Third answer: Every song is a trip. Some trips are easy, some are very hard. Some trips are so difficult that you are not ready to take them, certainly not to finish them. You must practice so you can make the journey. You must take little trips to build up for the big trip. Other people are also on the journey. Some of them are way ahead of you, some behind. Some walk near you and help you for a time. Others are great masters, and you look to them for wisdom and guidance. If you are lucky, you will have a great teacher. But in the end, you must walk alone, just as we all must. You may have been on this journey for a long time. Others are just beginning. But if you follow the Tao of the mandolin, you will be on this journey for the rest of your life. If you take trips every day, you will be one with the Tao of the mandolin. In fact, playing the mandolin is one way to be one with the Tao.

When I started playing the mandolin many years ago, I did not realize what I was getting into. I just thought I was going to try to learn play this interesting little instrument whose sound and shape intrigued me. I thought it would be a way to be different from all the guitar players. To my surprise, it became a part of my spiritual journey. That is the nature of the Tao. I wish everyone could know the joy of playing the mandolin, but they don’t really need to, for there are many many ways the Tao reveals itself. If you have ever found joy while playing the mandolin, you have felt the Tao.

Tao 2–Wu Wei, or Effortless Action

Tao 2–Wu Wei, or Effortless Action
I was watching Ronnie McCoury in his new Homespun video recently. I was struck by the way his playing seemed so effortless, despite the fact that there was hard-driving music coming out of his Gilchrist. All these notes are pouring out of that mandolin, but he just sits there above it, looking down serenely, seeming to be totally disconnected from the instrument, as if he’s watching somebody else playing it. He has this enigmatic little smile on his face as he watches his fingers pump out those downstrokes and double-time shuffles and tremolos. Then I watched a tape of Bill Monroe playing. Same thing! If anything, the sense of effortlessness seemed even more pronounced. His hands looked like my 98-year-old grandmother’s before she died: clear. That’s how some old people’s hands look to me, as if they’re turning translucent. But Bill’s fingers are powerful, and they’re floating over the fingerboard of that old Gibson, as only his fingers can float. And he has that same Buddha-like serenity as he picks, seeming to be detached from his own hands. I humbly suggest that this is Taoism-in-action.

I take that phrase from Benjamin Hoff’s introduction to Taoism, called The Tao of Pooh, published by Dutton. Much to my surprise, this little book is one of the most helpful and clear introductions to Taoism that I’ve found (and quite deep, too). According to Hoff, the Chinese word for this phenomenon I’m describing is “Wu Wei.” He translates “Wu Wei” literally as “without doing, causing, or making,” and he paraphrases that as “without meddlesome, combative, or egotistical effort.” It’s like water flowing over rocks, he says. I will quote him a little further:

“When we learn to work with our own Inner Nature, and with the natural laws operating around us, we reach the level of Wu Wei. Then we work with the natural order of things and operate on the principle of minimal effort. Since the natural world follows that principle, it does not make mistakes. Mistakes are made–or imagined–by man, the creature with the overloaded Brain who separates himself from the supporting network of natural laws by interfering and trying too hard” (p. 69).

Like much of Taoism, this strikes our Western minds as paradoxical. How can action exist “without doing”? How can we play music without making? I’ve been playing the mandolin for about 25 years. I’ve worked so hard at it. I’ve practiced and worked and sweated. I’ve contorted my body to wrestle music out of this little box. Oh no! I am indeed “the creature with the overloaded Brain”! I have interfered with natural laws. I have tried too hard. But that’s not how I want to play the mandolin! I want to “work with the natural order of things and operate on the principle of minimal effort.” That’s what I’m seeing Ronnie McCoury and Bill Monroe do in those videotapes. That’s what I see in almost all of the musicians I admire. Occasionally, but rarely, I see myself, feel myself do that. How can I learn to do this constantly? How can I work with my own Inner Nature and reach the level of apparent effortlessness that I see my masters achieve? I think the answer is in my brain, in my muscles, in my breathing, in my arms, in my shoulders, in my right hand, in my left hand, in my spirit. Oh, is that all, my mocking inner voice asks.

I recently saw another video. It’s from this summer’s reunion concert with the band I was in over 20 years ago. We all got together for one short afternoon of practice, then played a show to about 200 relatives and friends the next day. A few songs into the show, I kicked off “Stoney Creek.” I was so happy with what I saw on the video! I was playing the notes smoothly. My right hand was relaxed and fluid. I played the notes like water flowing over a rock. I looked down at my mandolin serenely, as if I were detached from it, an enigmatic smile on my face. . . (Was it only I who knew that about 25 years of work had gone into achieving that Wu Wei moment?)

Next time, I will try to talk about some of the actual mechanics of that kind of seeming effortlessness. How can all our work lead us to Wu Wei?

Tao 3–How to Achieve Wu Wei

Tao 3–How to Achieve Wu Wei
If on occasion we can achieve the experience the Tao calls “Wu Wei,” or effortless action, when the music flows out of us like water, why can we not achieve it all the time? Or how can we at least achieve it more often? A part of my brain says to me that if it can happen every now and then, I should be able to make it happen always, or at least most of the time. I should be able to find a way to will this magic thing to happen. Imagine a big dam holding back a big body of water. My Western mind looks at that body of water and tells me that I could engineer an intricate system of pumps that would let the water flow freely. It would take a lot of planning and hard work and technical know-how, but after I got through building my system, I could let the water flow at will. The Tao says open up the dam and let the water flow. You can’t will Wu Wei to happen. You can only open up and allow it. Unfortunately, we have a lot of mental and physical blocks in the way. The secret is removing the blocks. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Breathing–Breathing is a perfect illustration of the Tao. It flows in, it flows out. One of the fundamentals of T’ai Chi, the martial art/exercise based on Taoist principles, is breathing. Proper breathing is a circle, a very full circle. If I can learn to breathe when I play, my music will breathe too. But breathing is one of the first ways I block myself. As a solo approaches, my breathing quickens. Right before I start, I take in a big breath. Then I hold it as I play. At the end of my solo, I let it out. Then I wonder why my playing was so forced, so mechanical. If I can breathe in and out, very fully, very naturally, in a big circle of air, throughout my solo, my music will breathe too. One way to practice this is to play chord progressions while concentrating on breathing. Breathe in as you strum a G. Then breathe out on the C. Then back in on G. Then out on D. Then back in on G. Play the progression again; this time the breathing will be reversed. Once you feel comfortable with chords, play a tune you know very well, and practice breathing in and out to the phrases. This might be hard at first, but after a time, you will be able to do it unconsciously. This is the first step in letting the music flow out of you freely.

2. Muscle Tension–Our muscles also illustrate the Tao. They tighten and relax. They make a circle of their own. The muscles illustrate a paradox of the Tao, as well as a paradox of music. Action requires muscle, but a tense muscle restricts action. Del McCoury, who surely is a Taoist master, taught his son Ronnie to play the mandolin. His beginning advice was to keep your right wrist as limp as a dishrag. The power in Ronnie’s playing comes from that loose, loose wrist. When I first started playing, I wanted to get as much power and speed as I could get, as fast as I could. So I started playing with a very stiff wrist, using my whole forearm. Over the last few years, I have tried to turn all of that stiffness loose. I changed my pick grip from posting the pinky on the fingerboard to a loose fist. I straightened my curved wrist. I practiced keeping my wrist loose. Most recently, I switched my tremolo from a stiff wrist to a loose wrist. (I had thought that my tremolo was faster using my whole forearm. I stubbornly would not give that up, even after I had changed everything else. Then I actually listened to the two ways of playing, and realized with great surprise that the loose way was just as fast as the stiff way, and much smoother.) All of these changes are keys to opening up and letting the music flow. The right hand makes a circle as it hits the strings up and down. A circle is the key to effortless action. The right hand is just the beginning. All the muscles must be relaxed if we are to let the music flow freely. I find that I need to concentrate on my left hand and consciously relax it, not letting the fingers work harder that they need to. I especially have to relax my shoulders. I find that I block the flow of the music by raising my right shoulder just slightly. Even a subtle movement can block what my right hand does. If I let that shoulder drop, I can feel the music flow. Just as my breathing tightens right before I begin a solo, my muscles do too. And that, of course, cuts off the flow. I have to let myself relax. Loosen the right wrist. Loosen the left hand death grip on the neck. Let my shoulders drop. The power is in me. If I relax, it will come out.

3. Mental Tension–What am I so afraid of? What is it about notes coming out of a lump of wood that so terrifies me? I can sit in my chair in my music room and play these notes for hours. But put me on a stage, or even with just one other person, and the terror begins. What am I so afraid of? Or I think that I need to plan. What should I play over that change? Should I do the safe solo or try something new? Do I dare to try the Monroe chop break I’ve been working on? I think so hard that the moment passes and I’ve mangled every bit of it. The great Taoist philosopher John Lennon once said, “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream, it is not dying.” The music is in there. Let it flow.

Don’t worry about it. It is not dying. If I make a mistake, I laugh. The music is still in there. It can flow next time.
Now all of this is not to say that there is no need to practice. That body of water didn’t build up behind the dam all by itself. I practice every day to let the music fill me. But when it comes time to play, all I have to do is open up and let it flow. If I let down all the obstacles that block it, the water will flow. Wu Wei, effortless action. Breathing in and out. Circles. Relax. And then what power will come!

Tao 4–Do Not Contrive

Tao 4–Do Not Contrive
This is Chapter 29 of the Tao Te Ching, the central text of Taoism, in a version translated by Thomas Cleary:

 Should you want to take the world,

and contrive to do so,

I see you won’t manage to finish.

The most sublime instrument in the world cannot be contrived.

Those who contrive spoil it;

those who cling lose it.

So creatures sometimes go and sometimes follow,

sometimes puff and sometimes blow,

are sometimes strong and sometimes weak,

begin sometime and end sometime;

therefore sages remove extremes,

remove extravagance,

remove arrogance.

 The “most sublime instrument in the world” is, I’m sure, the mandolin. And I have no doubt that’s what Lao-tzu was talking about, even though the mandolin had not been invented yet. So you want to take the mandolin world? The Tao says you will not finish if you contrive to do so. To contrive is to spoil the mandolin. To cling is to lose it. (In my weak moments, I think that I own my instrument. But I know that, for a time, it owns me. Then it will own someone else.)
The Tao always counsels the middle way. Remove extremes, remove extravagance, remove arrogance. When I go to extremes as a player, when I embrace extravagance, when I become arrogant, the mandolin always humbles me. That is one of the main reasons that playing the mandolin is the most spiritual and human activity I engage in. I am a better person because I play the mandolin. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t! (Many people “play the mandolin” in some form or other. I’m just glad that I am lucky that my form actually involves playing the mandolin. But I will not contrive. I will not cling. I will not be extravagant. I will not be arrogant.)

Today I am forty-five years old. I have played the mandolin for roughly half my life. My only regret is that I had all those other years but didn’t play! (I “played the mandolin” in another form–but now I play the mandolin. And I hope to do so until the day I die.) If I avoid extremes, I will not spoil it. And when the end does come, I will have lived my life well.

Tao 5–Yin and Yang

Tao 5–Yin and Yang
I am always leery of pronouncements that break things into two parts: “There are only two kinds of people in the world–givers and takers.” As helpful and simple as such divisions can be, they always break down on even the slightest inspection. I, for example, am sometimes a giver, sometimes a taker.

At first look, the familiar Taoist symbol of yin/yang (a circle containing a black shape and a white shape, whose curving lines interlock, with a smaller circle of the opposite color in the “foot” of each) might seem to be such a simplistic division. Yin is the female element: creative, dark, heavy, and negative. Yang is the male element: disciplined, bright, light, and positive. If this were a simple division, yin and yang would be only another duality that reveals much but breaks down on closer inspection. But instead of a duality, it is a unity, with the two parts interpenetrating each other. Yin is a part of yang, and yang is a part of yin. One flows into the other. That’s why there’s white in the black and black in the white in the symbol. (That’s also why, despite its appearance, yin and yang is not really sexist. Even though I am a man, I am both yin and yang, just as my wife is.)

Now what in the world does yin and yang have to do with the mandolin? I would answer, only everything!
To play the mandolin takes both yin and yang. My yang side practices with discipline, learning scales and patterns, then applying them to the whole fingerboard. My yin side takes those patterns and scales inside and lets them flow out in beautiful musical statements (on my good days!). Yang makes me learn theory and note names. Yin lets my fingers walk on top of theory. Yang shows me how much more I have to learn. Yin shows me how much I already know. Yang disciplines me to practice daily and endlessly. Yin releases the creativity that is inside me.

I must have both, and I must let each have its full time. I can’t be all yang. Then I would be wooden, stiff, and mechanical. Nor can I be all yin. Then I would be formless and unfocused. But yin and yang together, in harmony, each flowing into the other–that makes music. Music is cold black notes on the white page (yang), as well as the notes flowing from the throat of the cardinal outside my window right now as I type (yin). Yin is Joe Pass playing live at Montreux, solo, in both 1975 in Switzerland and downstairs on my CD player right now in 1999. Yang is my upcoming mandolin practice, which will begin as soon as I stop writing. (Yang is all the hours of practice Joe Pass put into his guitar so that he could stand all alone on a great stage and let his yin flow so freely.)

In looking over at my mandolin on its stand just now, I have suddenly realized how inspired Orville Gibson was. The mandolin itself is a yin/yang symbol! The circles and curves and scrolls and holes are the carved wooden embodiment of yin and yang! (So it’s not mere scroll envy that drives many of us to this design–it’s a yearning for the Tao.) Orville Gibson was, I am convinced, a Taoist master, even if he never heard of the term. And if he was a master, what of Lloyd Loar? Yin and yang is in the very design of my mandolin. It is in me. It is time to let yin and yang penetrate each other. It is time to make music.

Tao 6–Rock the Tao!

Tao 6–Rock the Tao!
Some men hit the mid-life crisis and buy a red convertible. When I hit 45 recently, I bought a red electric guitar. (Full disclosure clause: I bought the red convertible four years ago.)

It’s a cheap Strat copy, but I love it. I started playing guitar when I was 17, in the height of the rock years, but I was never interested in anything other than acoustic instruments. When I picked up the mandolin a few years later, my acoustic fate was sealed. I just had no interest in all that electric sound. So what happened? I’m not sure. Maybe it was taking my 16-year-old nephew around last year as he shopped for an electric guitar. “Don’t you want to play it, Uncle Johnny?” he would ask, offering me a Strat or a Tele or a Les Paul. I’d shake my head no, not because I didn’t want to, but because I wanted to so much.

Suddenly I recognized something in myself, something that frightened me. I was being seduced by the electric siren! What would happen to my acoustic soul? I would lose my purity if I even touched one of those beasts!

Well, here’s the progress report after a couple of weeks of rocking out. I bought a book with the ridiculous title of “Make Yourself Dangerous on Rock Guitar.” (Can you imagine anything like that for our beloved mandolin?) I learned the blues scale patterns that fit on the guitar so well. (I already knew about these, sort of, but I really started to apply them and play with them.) I got a little Pignose amp and a multi-effects pedal, and now I’m flanging and distorting and phase shifting and chorusing and all this other stuff I don’t understand but recognize immediately from a million rock songs. And Lord help me, I’m having the time of my life! There’s something incredibly powerful about strapping that red guitar on and banging out power chords. No wonder this grips teenage boys so deeply, no wonder it seduces a middle-aged man so easily. This electricity stuff is pure, raw, sexy power.

And then I happen to look over there and see my little mandolin.

When I pick up that little wooden instrument, I feel my soul become a little more peaceful. It soothes me to play it. I have put down the machine and picked up nature. I have come home. But then it hits me that the mandolin is just as much a machine as an electric guitar is, just as much a product of engineering and science. And they’re both natural too; they’re both a combination of nature and human production. They both came from a tree, they both have metal, they both have been shaped my machine and by hand.

Here’s the shock: letting myself be seduced by the “evil” electric guitar has made me understand the mandolin better, made me play it better. As I was running through downstroke blues licks on the electric, I instantly knew better than I ever had just why Bill Monroe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bill was a pure rocker, as far back as 1946 or so! (At this week’s Sunday night jam, I played a break on “Bluegrass Stomp” that astounded even me. Fred the banjo player looked over in astonishment and asked where that had come from. It had come from my seduction by the electric guitar, and what that brought back to me of Bill Monroe, something he had taught several generations of rockers, something I had resisted for a very long time, something that I now had in my fingers, a direct but delayed gift from the Father of Bluegrass.)

So what does this have to do with the Tao of the mandolin? The Tao urges us not to limit ourselves. Don’t put ourselves into ruts. Explore extremes. Go all the way out on the edge. Embrace contraries. Grow. Grow until we die.
I’m not sorry I waited this long to let myself go. Maybe if I had done this earlier, the electric side would have taken me over. Now there is no way that it can. That little wooden mandolin has reached into the very roots of my being. But that other side has much to teach me, and I was limiting myself not to explore it. Rock the Tao!