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 Interviews with People Who Make a Difference: Creating An Imaginative Life  
 
Interview with Michael Jones
   as interviewed by Daniel Redwood DC

Michael Jones, the extraordinary Canadian musician and composer whose Narada recordings have sold over a million copies since 1983, happened upon his music career almost by accident. For years, he kept his original music to himself and a few friends, eventually recording a few cassettes as a favor to those friends. Meanwhile, he continued his career in human resource consulting, helping public and private organizations to improve the quality of working life. Only when prodded by others did he decide to pursue what has become a stellar musical career. His much-loved Narada albums include Airborn, Morning in Medonte, Michael's Music, Magical Child, After the Rain, Sunscapes, Seascapes, and Pianoscapes.

Jones was the first contemporary artist to be invited to perform at the prestigious Montreal International Piano Festival, and has made noteworthy appearances in various non-traditional concert settings. Some examples: In addition to the benefit concert he performed in 1990 for the Crotched Mountain School in New Hampshire, a care facility for emotionally and physically handicapped children, Jones also played a private show for the children, eliciting some of the most animated responses that staff members could recall; in 1991, he played for inmates in a maximum security prison in Ohio, then engaged them in a discussion on creative thinking; in 1993, he played at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago; and in 1994, he appeared at the Arthur Anderson and Co. Worldwide Training Center, where he performed and also took part in discussions on the creative process.

In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Jones discusses his newly released first book, Creating an Imaginative Life (Conari Press). He points out that while we often look at life in terms of its successes, the failures are what help us most. Interestingly, Jones rewrote this book virtually in its entirety after being told by an editor he respected that his manuscript, so full of meaningful, moving stories when he began, had become a dry academic dissertation. "What about your stories?" she asked him. Horrified at first and resistant to following her suggestion to throw away 90 percent of his manuscript, Jones gradually realized she was right. The result of the rewrite is a book that speaks from the heart as well as the mind, and should endure for many years.



Michael Jones Interview

DR:
Did you expect your music to be as popular as it has become?

MJ: No. I just started to do it as a favor for some neighbors and friends. They asked me if they could have music to put on when I wasn't there to play for them personally. The idea of doing a cassette tape really came out of that request.

DR: How did it grow from there?

MJ: It grew slowly over the following years. Goethe said that when you set about to fulfill your dream, providence sets in. There were a number of magical things that started to happen as soon as I recorded the tape. One was that I got a call from somebody who said, "You know, I really enjoy your music, and I think that your audience may be mostly in the States, and it may be in small gift stores and alternative bookstores and places like that which are just starting to bring music in." So she put me in touch with a distributor in Milwaukee, which turned out to be Narada Records.

DR: Which has certainly become much larger than it was back then.

MJ: When I started with them back in 1981-82, they were just beginning to build their distribution. So they immediately added the original Pianoscapes to their catalogue, and it grew from there.

DR: Could you tell the story of the man who said, "Who will play your music if you don't do it yourself?" That seemed to be the most pivotal experience in your life.

MJ: That was truly the turning point. There was a time when I felt very shy about my own music, and if I were in a public place, I had cover arrangements of popular tunes that I would play.

I was working with a group of health care system managers in a hotel near Toronto, and we took a mid-week break on a Wednesday evening. I came back early to play for a while, not in the lounge but just in the open registration part of the hotel. There was hardly anybody around, which is the only reason I sat down. But no sooner had I started to play than this older gentleman kind of weaves out of the lounge just down the hall and plops down in the chair beside me. I was feeling uneasy and a bit distracted, because I knew that as soon as I stopped he would probably ask for some requests, and usually I can't play those requests.

DR: Because you don't know that many songs? Or you don't know the ones they ask for?

MJ: I just never know the ones they ask for. [Laughter]. So when I did finish, the man said, "What was that?" to which I replied that it was an arrangement of "Moon River." He said, "No, there was something you were playing before that, that really brought me out here. What was it?" I was very self-conscious, and said that it was just some of my own music. He said, "Well, I really enjoyed that. That was lovely music." And he paused for a minute and said, "But you're wasting your time with "Moon River."

It really took me aback, he was just so blunt. We talked a bit about what I was doing with music. He thought perhaps I worked at the hotel but I told him that I had other work unrelated to music, and that it was my intention to change the world with that work.

DR: What was that work?

MJ: The work I was doing then was helping managers articulate purpose and vision for themselves and for their organizations. It was a form of organizational renewal work that I did mainly through four to five day educational programs with groups of people.

DR: Do you still do any of that?

MJ: I'm back into that work in a different way now. What was magical about that meeting was that he really drew me back into music through asking the question, "Well, how many other people do this work?" I said maybe 20 or 30 do it. And then he asked that question: "Who's going to play your music if you don't do it yourself?"

I am back doing that work now, but I'm doing it in a form called "Dialogue," which helps people engage in what we might speak of as generative conversation, almost like improvised conversation where they suspend their beliefs and assumptions and really speak from what's true for them in the moment. To facilitate the flow of this kind of conversation, we make sure that we have a piano in the room. And I play as people are coming in, during quiet periods when they're journaling. We also to use the music as a way of demonstrating certain things about how we can become generative, and be more in the moment with our conversation.

DR: So you brought these two aspects of your life together in a higher synthesis.

MJ: Just in the last few years. The Dialogue approach, which was funded by a Kellogg grant, has found its home at the organizational learning center at M.I.T. in Boston. It seemed like just a perfect place where I could bring the music back in. I feel that while we can really open the heart of the world through our art, as Henry David Longfellow said, our voice is really the language of the soul. We can't necessarily use our art as a substitute for being able to give voice to what's important for us.

DR: In Creating an Imaginative Life, you wrote about "the vulnerability of allowing words to form in the speaking of them." Does being in the moment in that way lead to content of higher quality, or more beautiful aesthetic form?

MJ: I think it leads to a deeper truthfulness, one that's not been planned or rehearsed in advance. And it may be that over time we're able to refine that and articulate it more clearly. But there's that moment of truth when the words just begin to come on their own. It's a practice that I think we're missing in our culture, but that is present in other cultures that are closer to their tribal origins. Laurens Van Der Post speaks so eloquently of his time with the Bushmen in Africa, and how when they gathered around the fires at night that's largely what they did--speak about the experiences they had during the day, and the meaning those experiences had for them. It's a quality of talking with one another that we don't have. The metaphor in our culture would be that we need to bring our front porches back to our communities. As we designed houses and took the front porches off, we also took away the quality of conversation those front porches facilitated.

DR: Do you think that academic study, as generally defined and practiced in North America, is a hindrance to creativity?

MJ: That's a big one! [Laughter].

DR: I know. That's why I'm asking it.

MJ: I think there are two modes of thinking. I can't fully articulate it, but I have a colleague who wrote a book called Quantum Society that articulates the different modes of thinking that come from being in the collective around the fire, and also the individual efforts of academic achievement. Both are important. The academic structure may be complementary, but in many cases it's not. I think it takes away from the spontaneity and the spirit of the moment, just as we find western music with a structure and form that seems to do the same thing.

There was some research done by a musicologist who found that western professional musicians are much more left-brain dominant than you would normally find in a population of musicians.

DR: Really!

MJ: It may be because we're entirely reliant on working from a written score. Many professional musicians speak of the terror they feel if the score is taken away and they're trying to feel the music on their own. There's something in our musical education that is really seriously lacking, in that we don't have the capacity to do both . . . Only a very small handful of students will ever go on to a classical music career, and yet we sacrifice the joy of music for so many others because we insist that they adhere to that rigid paradigm. There's one person I know went back to playing music at around age forty whose teacher actually had him play with a blindfold on, and he said it was just marvelous because he learned not only how to hear but how to feel the music in a way he'd never known before.

DR: You've written about feeling the energy in the wood of the piano. What is that like?

MJ: Wood is an organic substance. It's very much a part of earth and a part of life. There's a vibration or quality in wood that I'm sure physicists could be very articulate about, but it's just something that I feel. I've tried playing electronic instruments, and while I can go through the motions, there's something missing that's in the wood. I've heard David Foster say the same thing--he's a world-renowned producer with many famous hits, who was deeply involved in sampling music electronically. Several years back, he did something called the "Symphony Sessions," with an acoustic piano and a symphony. An interviewer asked, "Why did you go back to acoustic music, because you've been known for sampling for so long?" He said, "There's something in the wood. We couldn't sample the wood."

DR: It reminds me of something from the health field, of the difference between a vitamin pill that comes out of a chemical factory, as compared to a natural substance that grows in the ground.

MJ: And where the mind may not be able to make distinctions, the body knows the difference. When we're disconnected from the body, we can't tell. But music is such a physical expression for me, it's so much a part of my sensory world, that I really can feel the difference. There's a peacefulness that comes to me playing an acoustic instrument. At this point, when I'm doing engagements and people say that it's so hard to find a piano, and would I please play an electronic piano, I say look, I know there are really fine electronic pianos, and they're wonderful inventions, but I'd rather play a bad acoustic piano. [Laughter]. Don't ask me why.

DR: You tell many wonderful stories in Creating an Imaginative Life. They lead me to conclude that many of the crucial turning points in your life were ones where events would force you out of an old mold, sometimes against your own strong resistance. I'm thinking of the story about the bar where you learned to "play the room," and the time as a dance accompanist when you were asked to play like wind, rain or thunder. What's the deeper lesson in all of these breaking-the-mold stories?

MJ: I think the deeper lesson for me is that the changes in our life come more through story than they do through ideas. And that we can begin to see the unfolding pattern of our life if we reconnect with the stories that are associated with them. These stories were ones I had forgotten or had seemed totally insignificant. As I indicated in the introduction to the book, it was only in a concert when I ran out of music halfway through the evening...

DR: What did that feel like?

MJ: I was terrified. It was only my third concert and I was scared enough as it was. The idea of being on stage with absolutely nothing to offer!

DR: So what did you do?

MJ: I talked to the audience, which is something I had not previously done. Previously, I saw my self as a classical artist, not a disk jockey, so I would just play. But that evening when all that space opened up I had no choice but to talk, and what started to come out were stories. And the stories led to music, and then more stories. At the end of the evening, many people came up and said that the stories gave them a context for the music, and felt like stories from their lives. Because we are not in a story-sharing culture, we overlook these stories.

DR: Don't we have some stories in our culture?

MJ: Well, I certainly never heard them at school, and that is where a lot of our cultural tone is set. I learned most of the stories at camp. There is still an oral tradition that exists at summer camps. I was told many stories, and I learned to share many stories with the campers. So that's how I found that voice.

DR: What's a story from summer camp that still resonates for you today?

MJ: I was just thinking, I remember swimming the channel. To qualify to go on canoe trips, you had to swim this 75-yard channel from the front dock to the outer point. I can remember the first time I did that, I got about halfway across and I was convinced I was going to drown. So I just started to yell. The lifeguard, who was in the back of the rowboat, took me seriously and did an incredible jack-knife dive right into the water, probably the one time in his life he did a dive to save a camper. I got back to shore, and I was really embarrassed. People talked about it for three days. They had heard my yell throughout the entire camp.

DR: The facing of self.

MJ: I went back and swam that channel about two weeks later, and I went right across. Not a second thought in my mind. In fact, when I got over, I swam all the way back, which qualified me not only to paddle a canoe but to sit in the stern and be in charge of steering it.

DR: So failure makes us stronger?

MJ: I think in some ways it did, and that's a theme in my book. That often we look to our life in terms of the successes we've had, but failures are what give us weight. They pull us more into ourselves. I learned a lot about how to work with fear in that first trip across the channel, which enabled me to make the second trip much more smoothly. If I had made it across the first time, I never would have learned that.

DR: The single line in Creating an Imaginative Life that stood out most for me is when you quote a friend of yours as saying that the saints of the future would not be individuals, but communities. How does a community attain sainthood?

MJ: It comes back to what we were talking about before, about the practice of dialogue. There's something about the nature of what occurs when we step into a circle, and sit in the circle together. A deeper meaning starts to emerge, not from us but through us. So it can't be attributed to any one individual. There's something that we hold, a space that we begin to gather and hold together as a collective, that enables an insight to move through us...We've been individualizing ourselves for so many centuries, and we need now to bring those individual perspectives into a collective. Not to sacrifice them for a consensus or an agreement, but to enrich the dialogue by the many perspectives we bring to it. The more perspectives we can bring, the deeper and more significant the meaning that can emerge.

DR: So wisdom can come from being able to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously?

MJ: Exactly. By multi-dimensionalizing the field. As I do when I'm composing, and I think many composers do this. I play a piece an infinite number of ways, and the feel of the piece emerges out of all the ways I try to play it.

DR: Do you ever arrive at a final version? Or does it continue to evolve even after you have recorded it?

MJ: It continues to evolve. Recording is kind of an artificial point. The record company says, "We need an album from you." It may not always time to the creative process.

DR: So the recording is a space-time event but the creative process is eternal.

MJ: It just keeps going. Of course, a lot has been resolved before I record something. But in playing back the recording, I want to be surprised by a lot of what I've been doing if I'm going to keep it. If I've just played it through in the studio pretty much as I played it the day before, then I really want to go back and record it again.

DR: You quote Rilke often in your book.What is it about his poetry that moves you, and what is your favorite poem of his?

MJ: Something about Rilke's appreciation and depth of understanding for the interior life and the inner spirituality of that inner life. There's a beautiful poem of his called "The Swan." The theme that I love is that though the swan had been awkward on shore, when it steps into the water it moves like a king. There's the sense that when we step into the center of what is truly our life, we take on that same dimension.

DR: What about Chopin's music, and his teachings, is most meaningful to you?

MJ: For reasons I couldn't explain, it seemed that I was beginning to find an approach to music emerging in my own playing. It didn't come through my classical instruction so much as it just came intuitively, and it was oriented almost entirely around cultivating the art of touch. I often got frustrated trying to develop technique and doing scales at the piano. I do as little of that as possible, but I could spend hours and hours just finding the many different ways that I could touch a note. I didn't understand the context of why this was so important for me, until I happened to come across a book of Chopin's teachings as related by his students and colleagues. I discovered then that though I hadn't known it before, this was also at the essence of Chopin's teachings--cultivating the art of touch. A number of things were related to that. Staying in the freshness of the moment. To not repeat yourself. To not let the piano ever become drudgery. If you felt you were working too hard, to take time off and go for a walk, or read a good book, or go the museum. There was a gentleness in his teaching, about how to find the joy in the instrument and let that be what you bring through. It felt like my soul had connected with Chopin's in some dimension.

DR: Along these lines, you write that for many years you only played the high notes on the piano. Why was that? Is something wrong with the low notes?

MJ: I think I was a little reluctant to touch down for many years. I kind of hovered a few feet above it, and that was reflected in my piano playing. I had to begin to settle down more in my own body in order to find my way down the piano. I think in that way art is not separate or exclusive from our life. As we're shaping our art, we're also shaping ourselves. Now I just love getting into low notes. But in my earlier years, I hovered, both in terms of how committed I was to life, and also how ready I was to sink into those lower notes on the piano. Sometimes we only bring a part of ourselves into our creative life, and it's always helpful to know what part of ourselves we're holding back, and to find ways to nurture and develop that part as well.

DR: To fill in the blank spaces on the canvas.

MJ: In creating a canvas or creating a musical composition, we're also creating ourselves. As time goes on, perhaps our canvases and our music can get broader and broader. So we are filling out and expanding our lives as we enlarge our creations.

DR: Where do you go from here? What are your short- and long-term goals?

MJ: One of the tensions in my life is to formulate a vision of what I want to see my life evolve into over the next five years, and at the same time be very open to how things emerge. This book was not part of a long-range plan...and coming into music as I did also emerged in that way. I mean, I had no long-term plan to be a musician or to be a professional recording artist. So I find that I'm searching for that balance between having goals that I would like to achieve, and at the same time being open to holding a space where perhaps a deeper goal that I'm not aware of can emerge and help to shape my life.

Daniel Redwood is a chiropractor and writer who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the author of A Time to Heal: How to Reap the Benefits of Holistic Health, and is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. He can be reached by e-mail at Redwoods@infi.net. A collection of his writing is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.doubleclickd.com, and also on the New Age Forum of the Microsoft Network.

©1995 Daniel Redwood, D.C.
   
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 About The Author
Daniel Redwood, DC, is a Professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College - Kansas City. He is editor-in-chief of Health Insights Today (www.healthinsightstoday.com) and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of the......moreDaniel Redwood DC
 
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