The Zen of Alan Watts + South Park Animation + Music

Below is an interesting, truthful talk from Zen master Alan Watts, animated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the wacky creators of South Park and other hilarities. What I love about the talk is that Watts not only invokes music, but is also justifiably critical of our education system, and our way of engaging with the world. Watt’s talk reminded me of Sir Ken Robinson’s talk about how schools kill creativity. Watt’s talk below, is shorter. It’s worth 2 minutes 20 seconds of your time, for sure.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice by Jonathan Harnum is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Robinson’s talk is around 18 minutes, but is both funny and painfully true. Robinson has also written some great books.

9 thoughts on “The Zen of Alan Watts + South Park Animation + Music

  1. Mr. Harnum,

    I have been struggling with a notion for perhaps longer than I have been following your blogs. The last several posts on both StT and PoP have stirred that notion up for me again. But I’m not sure how to begin to articulate it in a clear and meaningful way. If I were to imagine myself as a school child again looking up to to a Ken Robinson calibre teacher perhaps I would dare to ask “But what about the rest of us?” Great chops are awesome, especially when disciplined with musicality and respect, but what about kids and others that have a need to join in musical expression but will always be “not that great”?
    The Radio Lab piece expressed the notion that music education could be liked to language acquisition, where beginners almost always have frequent experiences practicing with the professionals, and generally encouraged without harsh criticism. I applaud Axiom Brass’ “Music for all” outreach efforts and others’ efforts along these lines like Hickman’s little presentations. But are these really effective in the face of dying music programs in schools and marketplace realities where only a few of the exceptionally talented get limited jobs after exceptionally rigorous training. Which means that a large number of even professional level musicians end up with the empty bag. Mnozil Brass and Wynton Marsalis have shown interest and encouragement in helping kids learn to improvize and just mess around and accept that for a while its gonna sound bad before it gets good. But again these are exceptional experiences that most “average” musicians will never have. Can there be a different model where amateur musicians of any age can be encouraged to get together and have fun on their own terms? And how would practice and performance values have to change? What would it look like if a groundswell of amateurs could be encouraged to gather and express themselves in new and unusual ways? Could there be some sort of Dave Eggers tutoring style after school music program where kids and adults work together? What would attract thousands of adults with instruments forgotten in the back of closets to comeback and play again? And finally how could all the obstacles and limitations be overcome? Even if school programs could be revived, where are the ongoing opportunities for most of us after high school or college band/orchestra?

    So kinda bottom line, with things the way they are, why should schools spend on music education with such poor outcomes for the average adult having participated for eight to twelve years? What life-long possibilities could be created to make amateur musicianship worthwhile, desireable and sustainable?

    On another topic, How did your dissertation turn out? Defended and Done? Any textbook or educational materials forthcoming from it? Education probably wouldn’t read it -they neglect their own great psych & ed works. But hey, Psych, the arts, and athletics could use it!

    1. Hi Clyde-
      Thanks for the thoughtful response. You touched on several topics that are not only near and dear to my own heart, but are issues I think about nearly every day. The first is the idea that in order to “do” music, you have to be good at it. I wholeheartedly disagree with that on many levels. We live in a magical, unprecedented era, in which, at the touch of a button, we can hear master musicians do their thing or, in a more recent development (near-ubiquitous video), we can actually watch master musicians do their thing. I think, in some ways, this richness of musical exposure means that less people decide to take up instruments. Sitting around the house, playing music together, used to be a common way to pass the time for many families, at least before the widespread availability of recordings. Because of this, as kids, we grow up without that influence. Also, because recorded music is carefully chosen (and now carefully manipulated), I think that is giving us a false idea of what it means to be a musician, or to be musical. It’s like what the fashion industry has done to our collective concept (and young women’s in particular) of beauty. Because we’re always hearing “perfection” from people at the top of their skill in our recordings, this becomes the de facto benchmark. Sheesh, you openend up a vein here, Clyde. I could go on and on, so I will.

      There’s another kind of disconnect that I see in our school music programs, too, most of them. It’s based on 100+ year old model of music-making. The band and the orchestra are undeniably important and fun means of making music, but they aren’t the only game in town by any means, and certainly aren’t the most popular (not that I’m saying popularity is a judge of quality). The disconnect comes when a student leaves high school. After 7 or more years of study on an instrument, there are practically NO options to continue playing. Community bands are incredibly sparse, community jazz bands even more so. But we’re not teaching kids to improvise in schools, for the most part, and we’re certainly not teaching them to compose their own music. We should be doing both in order to prepare them for a lifetime of music-making, which is the ostensible goal, but one rarely accomplished, in my experience. And unless we take special pains to search out performances like these, they are also nearly non-existent in the greater community, more’s the pity.

      I am a champion of the amateur, and consider myself among them, even though I do sometimes get paid to perform. I’m also a champion of the adult beginner, a HUGE population of musicians who seem to be roundly ignored by education systems, academia, and nearly everybody but community music schools. These problems certainly won’t be easily solved, or soon, but I’m an optimist, and I know of many teachers and teachers-of-teachers who are making great strides toward addressing the many issues. I have hope!

      The dissertation is almost complete, thanks for asking. And yes, I’m working on a book called The Practice of Practice which should be ready to publish in the next 6 months or so. Some of the points you mentioned make their way into the book. If you’ve followed the blog, you’ll recognize some of the topics, I’m sure.

      Thanks for taking the time to write.

    2. This comment of yours kicked me in the gut, Clyde, in the best sense of the phrase. Maybe a kick in the pants is a better way of putting it. I can’t believe I didn’t reply to it right away, because it’s been on my mind for years.

      Your post touches on SO many important issues that the current “establishment” of music education (i.e. music in school settings) is almost completely ignoring. For the countless thousands who played in, and loved, band, choir and orchestra, and who are no longer in school, there are few to no opportunities to play in large ensembles. Or small ensembles. People are out there, people like you and me who want to play with other people, but there is no infrastructure to help make that happen. Few community bands or orchestras or choirs exist, and the logistics of keeping a large group running are time-consuming, and in my experience, precarious, to say the least. So much easier and it seems, more likely, that two to five or even seven people could get together.

      So before I wrote this reply, I paced around my house, thinking about what you wrote, because it’s a real problem, and one I’ve had so many discussions around, both in graduate school with other passionate music educators, and equally passionate players who aren’t teachers, but just want to make some music. During my pacing, I realized that there can be such a tool. A craigslist-like service, for musicians, at which people could post their instrument(s), level of experience, even audio/video clips. You could find people to play duets, trios, get together and improvise, whatever.

      Co-learning, teaching one-another, and distributed “leadership,” for lack of a better word, is how music has always worked best, for countless centuries. It’s been a mentor/apprenticeship model, but music has also always been a more egalitarian, communal kind of way to transmit the art. It’s this top-down, managed musical experience (band, choir, and orchestra), that is the anomaly, at least as far as musical history is concerned. The top-down, managed, large-group musical experience is super fun, and absolutely valuable, but it’s certainly not the only way to go about making music. Hardly!

      I get together with neighbors and we teach each other stuff. It’s fun, everybody always seems to learn something, and even more importantly (to me anyway), we’re building community and connections. But I’m lucky to have such people around. Or to have discovered they’re around. That’s the thing, I think. People like me and my neighbors are EVERYWHERE! We just so rarely get to meet each other and hardly ever in a musical setting.

      So I’m now musing what a Kickstarter campaign that might help make this happen might look like. I can design a good web site, but I don’t know enough to set up the web architecture for something like a Craigslist for musicians. It would be good to raise $$ to get the word out (=marketing$$), a tour around the country would certainly be fun, too, to help raise awareness. I went and bought some domain names:,,, etc. Am going to start looking into how this might come into being and be of some use.

      Thanks for throwing some gas on this fire that’s been smoldering, Clyde.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.