During Maracatu rehearsal the other night something interesting happened. In a matter of an hour two alfaias (rope-tuned bass drums of varying sizes playing a mixture of complimenting, powerful rhythms) got cracks. Our wonderful group leader was shaken and asked us to play a song that celebrated the spirits of Maracatu. That somewhat surprised me: he seemed to have given this happening some meaning, saw it as a bad sign. I liked the devotional song a lot but the new rhythm was hard to pick up for a beginner. We did the song a number of times and moved on. Soon after that our leader’s alfaia cracked, the third one in one evening! In my time with the group this had never happened before. Our leader explained that drums don’t get cracks because someone plays passionately but they do break when they are played nervously, with the wrong kind of energy. I think he was also devastated by the fact that two of the drums got broken when he was playing them.
My first thought was of a practical character: could the changed in the last few days weather conditions have effected the skin of the drums? Of course, it could be the combination of both: dry air and nervous energy. The last two practice sessions we were preparing for the upcoming workshop with the three renowned Maracatu teachers from Brazil. Our leader arranged for the workshop to happen in Uppsala and was keen on our group making the best of this master class with the masters of Maracatu. Maybe a little too keen. Maybe the pressure was too much and he brought in something extra into those rehearsals.
This made me think of the right effort that has always been a big question for me in many life situations. Strong willed and persistent as I am sometimes, I can keep pushing to only end up in the same place I started. I could have saved the efforts and time by stepping aside in the right moment, had I paid attention and not have become obsessed with the idea of how it should be. Most often I could make a good case for my persistence that in the end is more a sign of stubbornness.
In Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind Suzuki Roshi writes, “Our effort in our practice should be directed from achievement to non-achievement… which means to be rid of the unnecessary and bad results of effort.” “If your practice is good, you may become proud of it. What you do is good, but something more is added to it. Pride is extra. Right effort is to get rid of something extra”. (p 59) Suzuki Roshi encourages us to get rid of this “special effort to achieve something”. This is not the same as getting rid of an effort because even doing nothing would require a certain effort! It is about the effort to achieve something extra, more than what we are doing in the moment. When I add something extra to my practice of playing Maracatu, there is a chance that the drum cracks open.
So the right effort for me is about the right amount of effort as well as it is about the right attitude to what I am doing. With the right attitude, I will find the right effort, effort without the flavour of desire and therefore dependency. This extra is the desire to be something beyond what I already am, which brings me back to the subject of identities and roles that we strongly associate with: an excellent Maracatu player, a good leader, parent, spouse, etc. As I am writing this, my mind goes, “Hey, what’s wrong with aspiring to be “good” or “better” at something?” At the same time I realise that when we are good, we don’t need to engage our energy in trying to be that. We just do what it is we are doing the best way we know: writing a shopping list or a song, playing an instrument, attending to a sick relative, having sex with cool people. If I think about it, the times when I was really good, I was not trying to be good.
At the last Maracatu rehearsal we took turms playing gonguê (a type of metal cowbell), to beat the basic rhythm that the rest of the group listens to. When it was my turn, I took the instrument more than unreluctantly. Gonguê was not cool enough for me! I wanted to practice playing alfaia. When I felt the heaviness of gonguê in my hand, I realised how much I could learn about the rhythm with this seemingly simple instrument and started noticing how different instruments in the group were connected by the simple rhtytm I was playing on it. On a few occasions other members helped me find the rhythm whenever I lost it and lose it I did many times! I tell you, it was no easy matter, hitting this pile of metal with a piece of wood and keeping the tempo. When I let go of the cool drummer identity, I genuinely enjoyed playing and remembered what I liked about playing Maracatu and with this group in particular. Well, at least till the thought “Maybe I could learn to do cool improvisations Lukasz plays so well?” popped up at which point I started hitting the cowbell even harder. Those thoughts of becoming as good as someone we know or the perfected verison of ourselves in our heads are bound to come. For the moment the best thing I can do is notice them and … keep beating the rhythm.
For the next two weeks I decided to pay particular attention to situations when I find myself struggling with something and ask myself, “Where do I add this extra effort?” and “What/Who am I trying to be? How would I do it without trying to be that?” Last but mot least, “How does it affect other people/drum players?”