My Page: Tracy Bonham (How yogic training led to musical enlightenment)
Photo by Theresa Ortolani
I began studying yoga about ten years ago. Recently, I decided to deepen my practice and my understanding of yoga by taking an intensive six month training course to become certified to teach Hatha/Iynegar yoga. I had chosen to do this during a time when I was questioning my life’s path, especially concerning my singing career. The music industry wasn’t a friendly place anymore. All arrows were pointing toward “Plan B.” I didn’t have a “Plan B.” I have played music my entire life. Apart from waitressing in the ‘80s, I had always earned (or not earned) money by playing music.
One day I observed a class taught by a teacher whom I admired very much. I asked myself, “What is it that makes a good teacher?” I was getting really nervous because it was almost final exam time and I thought I didn’t have what it took to be a good yoga teacher. Six months of training is not nearly enough to fool anyone, I thought. I had memorized all of the poses, the Sanskrit, etc. It’s one thing to demonstrate where your foot goes or where your hands should be. It’s a completely different thing to hold the room—connected to yourself, your breath and the form—ultimately connecting with the students in the room.
The yoga instructor moved around the room assisting students with confidence and grace. She was floating. Then it dawned on me: It’s not about how much you know or how much the student thinks you know. It’s about who you are when you are teaching. It’s about who you are when you are practicing. It’s all about spirit. Your spirit is silent underneath the chatter, underneath the books you’ve read, under the information you’ve memorized. It’s about truly being yourself. When your mind connects with your body and your spirit, that is truth—that is invaluable. Take everything you have learned up until now and throw it out and just be. Be inside it. Someone can learn from that alone.
When I started thinking about all of this, I was immediately reminded of two famous quotes by musicians. Miles Davis said, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” Claude Debussy said a similar thing about music not being the notes on the written page but what’s behind it and surrounding it. Then I remembered a passage from Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth. He said that Spirit, God or peace—whatever you want to call it—is the gap between thoughts.
During this time, I started listening to more jazz, especially horn players like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. I thought of the breath as being connected to Spirit. In yoga, breath is your porthole to the present moment or Spirit. It wasn’t the notes they were playing but what was underneath it; where it was coming from.
Improvisations in jazz eluded me when I was a young classical musician. I pretended to get it. I transcribed Charlie Parker solos and sang or played them back on the written page. I could sing Ella Fitzgerald’s scat solo on Charlie Christian’s “Air Mail Special.” But I knew I couldn’t do it without them writing it first. I couldn’t come up with that shit on the spot—no way. I didn’t understand where that stuff was coming from. I assumed I was too square of a musician, too schooled, too white, too inhibited to really get it. That much was true.
Fast forward to the present and I have yoga and meditation to thank for helping me to the tip of the iceberg. I am thankful for the renewed passion in music—in listening, in playing, in performing and in teaching. Whatever is between those notes, that’s more interesting to me now.
Now, I am back with music. I made a record and it’s all me—the notes and the stuff in between.
Masts of Manhatta, Tracy Bonham’s first full-length album in five years, was released in July on Engine Room Recordings. Produced by Bonham, the album was mixed by Tchad Blake (Tom Waits, Phish, Los Lobos) and features the Brooklyn-based Smokey’s Roundup, a quartet led by guitarist Smokey Hormel.
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Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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