At David Darling’s recent Celebration of Life, Alexander Merz invited everyone to join him in a daily toning ritual. The exercise, he explained, fosters a sense of community among Music for People (MfP), whose members span more than a dozen countries. “I sing four quality tones—in memory of David, in honor of myself, to my friends and family, and the final one to the rest of the world,” Merz told the rapt crowd, speaking by Zoom from his home in northern Germany. “I change my pitch as I feel the impulse, following the energy.”
Since then, MfP has taken the amiable musician at his word. Every day at 6 p.m. (CET), he tones with about 20 people from Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and the United States. “Last week, I added someone from Spain,” says the trombonist, singer and DJ.
Merz is something of a household name in MfP-Europe, where he has facilitated workshops for nearly two decades. He also was part of MfP-Europe’s inaugural Musicianship and Leadership Program (MLP) cohort, which graduated in 2004.
We recently caught up Merz, a longtime soloist with the prestigious Bochum Symphony Orchestra, to discuss the impact of MfP on his life and career.
I understand that you found out about David Darling—and Music for People, in general—through his longtime friend Chungliang “Al” Huang. Is that true?
It is. I took a Tai Chi seminar in Hamburg the late ‘90s with Chungliang, who, at one point, stood in the middle of the room and followed the movements of his hands. Then he said, “This is called ‘wu wei’—Chinese for ‘doing by not doing.’ Everyone has to find his personal Wu Wei teacher.” I asked him afterward if he could recommend a Wu Wei music teacher for me. He recommended David Darling.
Five years passed before I looked up David online. It was 2001, and he had just co-launched MLP in Switzerland with Mary Knysh as well as Lynn and Eric Miller. I was one of their first graduates.
David and Chungliang were longtime collaborators. What did you learn from them?
Chungliang developed and taught his own Tai Chi style, which I still practice today. He showed me that flowing movements can be accompanied by different kinds of music, like classical and jazz.
David gave me a so-called attitude adjustment. He taught me that I can instantly improvise with anyone, anywhere. David also gave me the courage to do things I had never done before, like DJing and facilitating groups. I now listen to music with different ears and see the world with different eyes. I’m more curious and playful.
How has your approach to playing changed?
Before I met David, I did the same old warmups on trombone. I was bored. Today, I listen to my playing very intently, focusing on my timbre and the overtones I create. I also try to meet me “where I am” and find my groove pattern. My soloing is much more intense. Activities like finding my “Yay” voice and my “Oooo” voice have helped me play with more contrast. My “pianissimo”s and “fortissimo”s are more noticeable.
What was the impetus behind your daily toning project?
During the first COVID-19 lockdown in Germany, many of us played “Ode to Joy” [from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony] from our windows one Sunday night. It was at the beginning of the second lockdown in December that I thought about applying this approach to MfP’s “One Quality Sound”—a single note or tone that authentically expresses how you feel in the moment.
I like the idea of people from different countries singing together at the same time. It can be very healing.
And fun. Does music-making have to be so serious?
Of course not. I remember David sitting on the floor, doing all this crazy stuff, at the beginning of his workshops. He taught me how to play “nose flute” and reminded me not to forget to pull up the corners of my mouth while playing. Good advice.
To learn more about Merz’s daily toning ritual, visit https://youtu.be/7RpSTV7B0xY
Author: Robert Enslin