May 2014 = Tools

The monthly theme is tools.

The tools we use; the tools we no longer use; the tools we care for; the tools we take for granted.

The web tells me that tool, the noun, is a device or implement, one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function -- gardening tools, for example.  The synonyms are great: implement, gadget, device, contraption, gizmo.

Tool, the verb, means to impress a design on something (usually leather, also stone).  Another great list of synonyms: work, fashion, shape, cut, embellish, ornament.

And then there is one one of my favorite expressions: tooling around.  ("We were just tooling around on our bikes.")

What are your tools?  What do you do with them?

Is there a particular set of tools that mean something to you, that carry emotional weight?

For example, I saw my 99 year old friend Gladys's address book.  That's her tool, for sure.  It is an extension of her hand, her mind, her life. She is one of the best letter writers I have ever met.  The book was frayed around the edges and, seemingly, made of ball-point pen (by now), not a single blank space on the pages.  The entries were written in three different languages.  It was a wonder to behold.

Tools become us, comfort us.  I recall the way my ice hockey teammates would treat certain pieces of equipment.  One player I know was still using her elbow pads from grade school although she played for both Harvard and the US Olympic team.  She had access to the best tools (equipment) on the planet, but that set of elbow pads was more than just protective (were they even protective anymore?).  There was something else about them.  Were they comfortable?  Obviously.  That was part of it; our tools need to be comfortable; they need to "fit" us.  Did they contain some magical quality? Maybe. 

Our tools can have an inner glow of mystery or radiance, as if the thing itself has supernatural or shamanistic powers. Many guitar players I know obsess over their guitar picks; they have one or two with a certain kind of juju in them. My teacher John used stone guitar picks that he made himself. Each one had a kind of aura.  It was the stone he used -- agate, but it was also his own reverence for them.  They were always with him.  I am sure he's using one now, up in heaven.  It is probably on fire, that pick.  

I'm a singer; my voice is my tool.  When I had my vocal surgery in 2002 to remove nodules from my vocal chords, I almost lost the ability to sing.  Did I almost lose a tool?  The tool was badly damaged and needed a long time to recover.  I didn't talk for 3 months.  It wasn't until a year later that I could really sing anything with any kind of accuracy.  I had lost control over my voice.  And when I got my voice back -- I called it my "new voice" -- it was weird, higher pitched, did things I didn't ask it to do.  Didn't always behave.  I was just learning to how handle it again.

What isn't a tool, really?  When you get right down to it.  Is there a threshold you have to cross with an object that really makes it yours?

Talk to me.  What do you think?

Do your tools have special qualities?  Have you ever lost one, broken one, left one somewhere?  What did that feel like? Tell me a story. 

Take me somewhere.  Let me in. 

I Fell in Love with an Egg Timer and My Playing Got Better


I am always looking for ways to improve it, develop it, get better at it. 

There are many ways I work on it - meditation, saying no to things, working from a list, cutting down on consumption.  But in the day-to-day, one of the best ways I've learned to focus is by using this tool: the kitchen timer.

How does a kitchen timer make you focus? 

Setting a time limit on a task allows you to go deep and shut out distractions.  It's you versus the clock.  How much can you get done in 20 minutes? in 30 minutes?

During those 20 minutes, you make a deal with yourself: buckled down and do this one thing for 20 minutes, then you get to do something else.

I use a timer when I practice ANYthing -- guitar, drums, bass, voice. I use a timer when I sit down to write.

When I have a choppy day full of errands, lessons, and sessions, I set the timer for 10 minutes and get small, deep practice sessions done before I head out the door, between two appointments, or right after I walk in my apartment.

I can hear you saying it right now, "Why not just use the timer on your smart phone?"

I'll tell you why.  Using the timer on your smart phone means you have to fiddle with your smart phone to set the timer and turn it off.  It also means your smart phone will be sitting right next to you during your "supposed" deep focus session.  No one -- not a single person -- does deep work with their smart phone beside them.  Get real.  How do you get real? Get old school.  Go analogue.  Get a stand alone, honest to goodness kitchen timer.

Over the years I've bought, broken, or lost 20 or more of these things.  There are a million timers on the market; an Amazon search pulled up 2682 results.  Walk into any kitchen store and there will be five or six for sale, ranging from $5 to $55 or more.

One of my $5 timers recently broke.  So I was on the hunt for a new one.

I decided to hit up Amazon and found a GREAT one.  It's called the Smart Cube Timer.

Why am I in love with this timer (besides the fact that I am a total geek)?

1) It limits your choices.  Less is more.  You can only time yourself in 5, 15, 30, or 60 minute intervals. 

Limiting your choices -- when it comes to getting anything done -- is a good thing.  Less is more. 

2) It is whimsical and playful.  The large cube shape reminds you of a Rubik's cube, of dice, of wooden blocks. You want to touch it, flip it over, turn it around.  To time yourself for 15 minutes, you push the on switch and put the side with the big number 15 facing up (toward the ceiling).  The timer immediately begins to count down.  When 15 minutes are over, the timer beeps.  To stop the beeping, you turn the cube around so the zero faces up. 

What if your sweet spot for practicing is 10 minutes or 20 minutes?  Challenge yourself and grow: focus for five or ten extra minutes.  You can do ANYTHING for five minutes more.  Or get a different cube.  There at least three other cubes (in bright colors) that count down in different intervals (the yellow cube counts 5-10-20-45 minutes, the purple counts 5-10-20-30 minutes, the green counts 1-5-10-15 minutes).

In the end, of course, it is not about your kitchen timer, but about the time you put into your instrument.  The kitchen timer is a tool.  That's all.  The best tools are the ones that get used ... a lot. 

What are your strategies for focusing?  What tools do you use?  Any tips and tricks you want to share?  We are all in this together.  It's us against the forces of distraction ... Give it up!