Music as a reflection of life: What I learned from jazz drummer Jerry Granelli

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“By the end of the week, we’ll have turned you into a blues band.” Gulp. I could feel the anxiety rise when I heard those words. A blues band?! Me?! I have no musical talent and my Mennonite body is rhythmically stunted from all of those “dancing is sin” messages I heard growing up. How could I contribute to a blues band?

That statement still stands as one of the most intimidating things I’ve ever heard from the facilitator of a leadership workshop. Not surprisingly, it also turned out to be one of the most life-changing. Of course, in order for it to become life-changing, I had to get out of my own way first. I had to loosen my grip on some beliefs about myself and be willing to be uncomfortable for a while. By the end of the week, I had indeed written a verse for a blues song and performed it together with a rag-tag bunch of other equally intimidated participants over dinner in front of hundreds of people.

The invitation came from Jerry Granelli, a famous jazz drummer best known for the soundtrack of Charlie Brown’s Christmas movie. He was teaching the workshop together with Margaret Wheatley and Jim Gimian, as part of the annual leadership intensive program of ALIA (Authentic Leadership in Action, formerly Shambala Institute). I’d signed up because I was a fan of Margaret Wheatley’s work. I left a fan of Jerry Granelli’s.

Last week, I re-listened to an interview that Jerry had done with CBC radio in the year before he died. And then I listened to it again and wrote down notes. Next I found a documentary about him and watched that. Then I watched an hour-long workshop that Jerry taught two days before his death (in 2021). Posthumously, Jerry had returned to be my teacher once more. Although I learned a lot back in 2010 when I was part of that blues band, I find myself even more tuned in to what his teachings offer me now.

Here’s some of what I took notes about:

1. Years and years of practice brings you closer to your own voice.

“It takes forever to sound like yourself,” Jerry said in the interview. “If you put a seed in the ground, it takes a lot of water to get a tree. So why should you wake up one day and find your voice? You practice in order to find your own voice, but at first you have to try to sound like other people.”

In the early years, Jerry rose in prominence as a drummer because he’d gotten so good at emulating other drummers. But then one of those drummers stopped him and said he had to figure out what “Jerry’s sound” was. From then on, he got clearer and clearer about what was uniquely his to put into the world. He’s now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being a pioneer of psychedelic jazz. He’s also well known as an innovative teacher of Buddhist practices.

Jerry’s words were resonant for this moment partly because of the book I have coming out, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation and holding space for oneself. Even more than my first book, The Art of Holding Space, this book feels like a fine-tuning of my own voice. Like a sculptor, I feel like I’ve spent years chipping away at all of the “not-Heather” words to get closer and closer to the essence of the “pure-Heather” voice – the voice that’s less weighted down with other people’s expectations and my own self-imposed limitations. Perhaps when I’m eighty, as Jerry was, I’ll be as close as I can get.

2. Our habitual patterns limit our capacity to make beautiful music.

“On a good day,” Jerry said, “we have the least amount of habitual patterns, so we’re completely spontaneous.” That spontaneity and freedom from the old patterns allows us to make innovative music. Unfortunately, a lot of days are not so good and our habitual patterns keep us stuck in mediocre melodies.

In my upcoming book, I unravelled some of those habitual patterns in myself in order to release myself from them and become more free to be spontaneously and authentically myself (at least… on a good day). Like Jerry, I want to be a channel for the music, not get in the way with my own hang-ups, self-doubt and ego stories.

I believe that this is such important work that I’ve also created a course where I provide tools and practices for witnessing and releasing those habitual patterns, because I want to help others get closer and closer to free, authentic and joyful living. If you’re noticing patterns of self-sabotage, perhaps that’s related to the way you’ve been taught to treat yourself by your family of origin. If there are shame stories you can’t let go of, perhaps there’s a thread that’s connected back to your religion of origin. If you’re driven by perfectionism and a value system rooted in performance and productivity, perhaps that can be traced back to grind culture and capitalism. Once you see those patterns and the threads that tie them back to their roots, they’re easier to let go. (Maybe one day I’ll even be able to dance as though the habitual patterns of a Mennonite childhood are no longer in my body.)

3. Practice is a life-long commitment.

“Last week,” Jerry said to the interviewer, “I had to keep from setting fire to my drums… I couldn’t make love to it… I went looking for salvation and the drum said ‘oh no, you can’t use me like that.’” At eighty years of age, he was still wrestling with the demons that got between him and the music, between his ego and his own voice. He was still humbled by the process. He was still slipping back into his own habitual patterns.

Unravelling and releasing those habitual patterns is never a “once and done” story – we still live within the systems that shaped us and we are still inescapably human, so it’s an ongoing, never-ending practice. There is always new information, there are always new ways to examine our patterns, and there are always more fumbles to keep us humble and in the practice.

4. Making beautiful music requires our willingness to be uncomfortable.

“What makes him special,” Jerry’s son said in the documentary, “is his willingness to be uncomfortable.” It’s clear in both the documentary and the interview how much Jerry pushed the edges of the music, and pushed the edges in himself, to allow something truly unique and revolutionary to emerge. That requires courage and a willingness to be unsettled – both individually and collectively.

In the documentary, Jerry can be seen creating rhythm with all manner of sound-making objects. He didn’t limit his imagination or playful spirit to what is conventionally known as a drum kit. During one of our plenary sessions at ALIA, the year after we’d created the blues band, I was puzzled to see a collection of pots, bowls and buckets on the stage, until I realized that Jerry was part of a team inviting us into a collective act of creation. Soon, he was making sounds and rhythm with that random collection and inviting us all to make music with him.

5. Music requires us to be willing to spend time with ourselves.

“Here’s a new way to make art – to start with myself. Start with my own mind, being brave enough, being willing to spend time with myself. Without the instrument.” In the workshop, Jerry goes on to say that “this (pointing to himself) is the instrument”.

A healthy, ongoing, honest relationship with ourselves is what allows us to access our own voices and to make beautiful music. As a Buddhist, Jerry nurtured that relationship by committing to an ongoing seated mindfulness practice. You can do a seated practice together with Jerry if you watch the workshop video.

My mindfulness practice has been less attached to seated meditation than Jerry’s, but it is still very much a part of how I spend time with myself. I practise mindful self-reflection in my journal, and regularly take myself out for mindful walks in the woods. On social media, I have, somewhat jokingly, said that one of my goals for 2024 is to spend more time sitting on things in nature. It’s not really a joke, though – it’s part of my practice. It lets me spend time with myself and it helps me see myself as part of the landscape. (I teach more about my practices in Know Yourself, Free Yourself.)

6. Our music is meant for the collective.

“What does it take to play music with another human being? Interestingly enough, what it takes is the same things to live together as human beings.” – Jerry Granelli

As much as the interview and documentary focused on the unique genius of Jerry Granelli, none of it is really about individual genius. As a drummer, Jerry didn’t make music that was meant to stand alone – he was always part of an ensemble. He committed himself to his practice and to releasing his own habitual patterns not to become a solitary superstar, but to make beautiful, spontaneous music together with other people with a similar commitment. He did his individual work to find his own voice, and trusted other members to do their work to find their own voices, and together they created the conditions for magic.

As I develop my own work, I find myself in a similar dance – often creating independently, and yet always with the collective in my heart and mind. As much as I can, I try to remember that my voice is part of an ensemble.

The music was always much bigger than Jerry Granelli, just as this work that I do is much bigger than me. The work that you are called to do, the art that you are called to create, is always bigger than you.

7. Change the way you make music and you’ll change the system.

During that plenary session where Jerry was playing on pots and buckets, and a few hundred people were making sounds with their voices and bodies, there were other things going on as well. Arawana Hayashi invited some participants into an unchoreographed dance, and Barbara Bash invited a few to pick up brushes to make a massive collaborative art piece at the front of the room. I volunteered to be part of the brush work, and I can honestly tell you that few experiences have ever been more moving. For an hour or two, that conference room was buzzing with possibility and promise as we all contributed to creating something fully embodied and fully collaborative that had never existed before (and seemingly had no “purpose” in the way capitalism has taught us to understand purpose). (You can see a similar spontaneous co-creation by Jerry, Barbara, and Susanne Chui in this video.)

Not only do we often get stuck in individual habitual patterns, we get stuck in collective ones. Those habitual patterns end up becoming our systems (and driving our systems) and they exist on the micro level and the macro level. We are part of family systems, religious systems, economic systems, cultural systems, and political systems. All of those systems continue to function – often in increasingly destructive ways – because we fail to examine the habitual patterns at the root and we resist the discomfort of co-creating something new.

We can’t make jazz together when we accept the status quo as the only way to make music. How many conference rooms have you been in where nothing new was being created, where the only voices allowed to speak were telling the same old stories, harnessed to the same old habitual patterns? What will it take to change what’s happening in that room?

Systems are only as strong as the commitment people make to upholding them. When we unravel our codependence with those systems, shift our habitual patterns, and stop treating ourselves the way those systems have taught us, they have no choice but to evolve or die. Then, out of the compost, something new can be born.

We all have an opportunity to be in the magic of that conference room, where something new is being created. We have opportunities to unlearn our habitual patterns, find our unique voices, and create new music.

That music might seem a little amateurish at first, like the blues band I was part of when I first met Jerry, but that’s only a place to start. With time, we’ll each get more and more clear about our own voices so that together we can make something beautiful.

Thank you Jerry, for being my teacher.


p.s. Want to be in conversations about what it means to release habitual patterns and co-create the conditions for something new to emerge? Join me for Know Yourself, Free Yourself. It starts March 5.

This is my practice

broken foot

Saturday was going to be a perfect day. I didn’t have much planned, so I could get some of my long overdue cleaning done, and then enjoy the irresistible Spring weather with a bike ride, a wander in the woods – maybe even a trip to the zoo. Maddy was vying for ice cream. It was going to be full of ease and fun, mixed in with a little bit of cleaning.

Saturday turned out to be a far-from-perfect day. After deciding it would be best to start the day with a bike ride, Maddy and I headed to the garage for our bikes. I never made it to my bike. At the bottom step into the garage, my ankle collapsed (I think I stepped on the edge of something on the floor), my foot hit the floor at a weird angle, and I was suddenly face to face with the concrete, writhing in pain.

A few hours later, after the pain got increasingly worse, an emergency room practitioner told me that I’d broken a bone in my foot. I limped back out into that irresistible Spring weather on crutches and in a cast. No bike ride, no wandering in the woods, no trip to the zoo.

It got worse. That evening, limping into the bathroom, I suddenly felt very dizzy. “I think I might pass out,” I shouted to my husband, and then woke up on the floor, my face next to the toilet.

It got worse. My husband and daughter got me onto the toilet, and then the vomiting started. And more passing out. And more vomiting. (This is not new – when I vomit, I usually pass out at least once. Nobody knows why.) In between the vomiting and passing out was the weeping and extreme self-pity. “Why is this shit happening to me?” I wailed. I suspect I got food poisoning from the creamy coleslaw my husband picked up at the grocery store.

I’d like to say I’ve been in a perfectly good place since then – that I came to terms with the injury, put it into perspective, and cheerfully adapted my life around this inconvenience. Because I’m just that evolved. That would be a lie.

Sure, there have been moments when I’ve had a remarkably good attitude, when I tell people “I guess the universe thought I should sit down for awhile,” or “just when I was teaching a lesson on surrender for my Lead with Your Wild Heart program, I got a bonus lesson myself,” or “perhaps this will be a good time to work on my book, since I can’t do much more than sit.”

But there have been lots of moments in between those good-attitude-moments when waves of self-pity wash over me. “Isn’t it enough that my mom died and my husband had a heart attack in the last six months – do I really need ANOTHER challenge in my life?” or “Doesn’t God know that I really, really need those Springtime walks in the woods to help heal me from an extremely tough winter? How can this be fair?” or “I have two trips, half a dozen classes and workshops to teach, AND my annual visit to the Folk Festival coming up in the next month and a half – how the hell am I supposed to do all of those things on crutches?!?” or “I just want to phone my Mom and let her feel sorry for me for awhile. It is so FUCKING unfair that I can’t phone my Mom anymore!”

The waves come and the waves go, and I try to weather them all. Self-pitying-whiny-woman, super-spiritual-accepting-woman, angry-bitter-why-me-woman, stoic-and-determined-not-to-let-this-get-the-better-of-me-woman – all of those people reside in my head, along with a few of their friends.

Here I am, sitting in the middle of all of that, trying to find the simplicity in the complexity of these voices, trying to be okay with what shows up, and trying to extend grace to every version of myself as she appears.

This is my practice.

Telling super-spiritual-accepting-woman that she doesn’t need to make so much effort to find the path straight to the deeper learning. And when she retorts with “But… I’m a TEACHER! Teachers are supposed to be wise and find lessons in things and…” simply smiling and telling her that it’s okay, the learning can wait.

Holding the hand of stoic-and-determined-not-to-let-this-get-the-better-of-me-woman while she tries to figure out a way to prove to the world that she is superwoman and can still cook supper, teach her classes, and accomplish great things, and letting her sink into her weakness for awhile instead. “It’s okay – your husband and kids are perfectly capable of fixing supper and doing the laundry. And – just look at that! They’re doing it willingly!”

Choosing not to beat up on self-pitying-whiny-woman when she needs to feel sorry for herself, but just letting the tears flow for awhile, observing the hurt that is behind them. “You’re human – you’re allowed to have human emotions.” While she cries, just trying to be the compassionate mother I would be to my own children, or that my mother would be to me if she were here.

Biting my tongue against the platitudes that are intended to fix angry-bitter-why-me-woman, like, “it could be so much worse – you could have broken BOTH feet!” and “what right do you have to complain about First World problems when people are starving?”, but rather letting the waves of anger pass and extending kindness to her in the moment. “Fixing” usually turns out to be more like “putting a bandaid on a wound that needs air”.

This is my practice.

Being present for what is.

Simply noticing the emotions – the hurt, the anger, the frustration, and the sadness – and letting it all pass.

Letting the healing and beauty show up in little moments – the way the light makes the leaves outside my window glow – instead of desperately clinging to my need to walk in the woods.

Welcoming gratitude when it comes. Like when my daughters willingly show up with food or help pick me up off the floor.

Extending grace to myself, again and again.

Letting people help me.

Letting myself be wounded.

Letting my heart feel broken.

Letting myself be healed.

Seeking patience, one little moment at a time.

Seeking acceptance of who I am.

Inviting myself to keep learning.

This is my practice.

There’s a good reason why it’s called “practice”. It doesn’t come all at once. It comes only as I commit to it, again and again, and start over again each time I fail.

This morning I failed. I cried. And it was what it was.

This is my practice.

Gratitude practice – letting the light through the crack

I won’t pretend that things are easy right now. It’s not the way I walk in the world. I won’t dump every sadness on you every time we meet, but when it comes to my writing, I choose not to plaster a shiny happy mask over a broken life. I believe that’s what you come here for – a tiny light that struggles to shine even when the dark clouds roll in.

No, life is not easy. There are some really good days now and then, but mostly life continues to be hard and I continue to cry a lot of tears over a lot of wounds and disappointments.

BUT… that doesn’t mean that life is not beautiful. Beauty is not dependent on ease or perfection. Beauty emerges through (and because of) the pain and the brokenness, the storm clouds and the rain.

We wouldn’t value light if we didn’t see shadow. We wouldn’t know joy if we didn’t understand sorrow. We wouldn’t have flowers if we never had rain.

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen

And so, in the middle of my darkness, I look for the crack that lets in the light.

To add another metaphor to Leonard Cohen’s wisdom, my rock balancing has also taught me that there is a rough edge on everything – it’s what helps it keep its balance.

Exactly 12 years ago this month, I was in the hospital hoping my son would survive a compromised pregnancy. In the first few days, when the surgery failed and I had to resign myself to weeks in bed away from my busy career-driven life and my two beautiful little girls, I gave in to despair, fear, and anger. WHY couldn’t the doctors have taken me seriously the week before when I told them something was wrong with my pregnancy? WHY did they have to botch the surgery? WHY was I stuck in a bed when other people were walking around blissfully enjoying their pregnancies? WHY was I being yanked out of my life at the pinnacle of my career when my staff needed me most? WHY, WHY, WHY?

Then one day I realized I had a choice to make – I could continue to stay mired in the despair and bitterness, or I could accept what was happening and begin to see the tiny specks of light shining through the crack.

I chose the light.

It all started to shift the day I started a gratitude journal. At first the journal was simply a place to keep track of the things I’d need to send thank you cards for – the flowers sent from a friend in Ontario, the pyjamas sent from my sister-in-law in California, the food delivered by family, the care provided for my children, etc., etc. Soon, though, it began to take on a life of its own. It was my life-line, holding me close to shore when the storm threatened to toss me out to sea. The simple act of recording all that I was grateful for shifted my attitude from despair to hope and reminded me what I still had to live for.

Because of that gratitude practice, I was more prepared to handle my son’s death a few weeks later.

I think it’s time to start recording my bits of gratitude again. I need to reach for the specks of light seeping through the jagged ugly crack that is consuming my life. I need a life-line to hold me close to shore.

Here is my beginning…

I am grateful for:
– a river that runs within a block of my house
– the discovery that balancing rocks on the riverbank brings me peace and comfort in this time of imbalance
– a husband who sees my tears, sends me to bed, closes the door, and promises that he won’t let the supper burn that I’ve left on the stove
– the 46 years worth of love I’ve received from my Mom
– the little bit of wilderness I can find in the park down the street from my house
– the circles of women (both physically near and far away) who give me safe places to fall apart
– the early signs that a diet change and the supplements from my naturopath are beginning to address my fatigue
– green tea with ginseng and honey
– a make-it-yourself kaleidoscope from a friend
– butternut squash soup
– a long, meandering conversation with a friend at the river’s edge
– endless games of dominoes and rummicube with my mom and her husband
– siblings and siblings-in-law who love Mom as much as I do and who are so easy to get along with in this time of grief
– daughters who are grounded and wise
– a laundry room that’s clean enough that I don’t feel waves of failure and guilt every time I walk into the room
– you, my readers, clients and friends

What’s your practice?

This morning, I increased my running time and programmed it accordingly into the timer on my ipod. When I run, gentle Tibetan bells ring in my ears to tell me when my running interval is over, and then (when my 2 minute walk time is over) when it’s time to kick it into gear again.

On my second ten minute running interval, it seemed to be taking forever for the bells to ring. I was getting pretty tired, and a cramp started under my rib cage.

“Oh my gosh!” I thought, “surely it shouldn’t be this hard to add just one minute to my time!” I kept running though, determined to complete the interval.

Eventually, I started to wonder about the timer. I took my ipod out of my pocket. Surprise, surprise! The bell hadn’t rung and I’d run right through my rest time and all the way to the end of the third interval! Twenty-two minutes without stopping!

Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised that I had much greater capacity than I thought I did. Apparently, I’m not running to my full potential.

When I started running back in June, I could barely survive the one minute run, two minute walk intervals. Now I can run 22 minutes and not pass out at the end! I felt great!

Lately a few people have asked “what are you training for?” – as though there’s no good reason to take up running other than training for a specific goal. Others ask about weight loss – as though it’s only about accomplishing some improvement in my body.

In answer to the first question, I have been known to say, rather sheepishly “well, I’d like to run the half marathon in June, if possible.” It seems to satisfy their goal-oriented mind-set. In answer to the second question, I have – equally sheepishly – said something about “every little bit helps”. Neither answer feels like my full truth though.

What I’d like to say is, “I’m training to be more fully alive. I’m training to be more fully myself.”

THAT’S what it’s about. When I run, I am energized, alive, and full of creative, spiritual energy. I am present in my body and my mind. I delight in the sweat and adrenalin and I feel like I am coming more fully into what it means to be me. I am connected to God and to nature and to what it means to be alive in the universe.

That’s why I like the word “practice” rather than “training”. Training is about achieving a goal. When my running becomes my practice, on the other hand, it isn’t about reaching goals, striving to be an award-winning athlete, or becoming a thinner version of myself. It’s about adopting running as one of the practices that helps me grow and learn and stretch and meditate and think and create and just be fully alive.

I love the word “practice”. I especially like it when it’s attached to the things we do – running practice, yoga practice, dance practice, writing practice, photography practice, meditation practice – even medical practice and law practice. It’s not necessarily about perfecting these things (though we do strive to get better at them), it’s about being present in them and growing more fully into the person they help us to be. It’s about doing them because we love them and know the value they bring to our lives.

Our culture (especially our masculine-driven business world) tends to be goal oriented and product oriented. We need to see evidence of success, production, completion, victory, and graduation. But most of the time, completion is the least important part of the process. Often (perhaps always?) true success is in how well we commit to the practice and how much we are committed to being life-long learners and practitioners.

Practice is a perfect Sophia word. Feminine wisdom helps us separate ourselves from the outcome and sit more comfortably with the process. It helps us be more present with God and with nature and let our practice change us and change each other.

It’s not that outcomes aren’t important – it’s just that often the process IS the greatest outcome.

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