That thing you love, has it ever lost its spark? What caused that? It's easy to get cynical, to shut down and to give up but that initial spark is worth fighting for. Ray Ford shares his story and addresses some of these questions in this episode of the podcast.
Ray's Introduction to the Hang:
Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain and this is The Handpan Podcast.
Sylvain: Your craft, that thing you love, which is produced so much joy and human connections throughout your life. Has It ever lost its spark. What caused that? Was it the passing of time? Did you get stuck or simply bored? Was it the culture around it? The expectations? Were you disappointed or hurt? It's easy to get cynical, to shut down and to give up, but that initial spark that which started it all for you and me is worth fighting for as we get to learn all the nuances of how handpans are made, how they work, could it be that ignorance is bliss? Does pulling the curtain ruin the magic of the handpan? On today's episode, my friend Ray Ford shares his story and addresses some of these questions. He helps us to rediscover wonder that place of reverie and imagination and childlike innocence as one of my friends would say, it's time to reignite your spark. Let's go!
Sylvain: Ray, it's really good to have you on the podcast. How are you?
Ray: Hey, good, thanks sylvain. Thanks for having me on.
Sylvain: Yeah, my pleasure.
Ray: We just got back from another camping trip out in the hill. So, uh, it's been a nice relaxing day.
Sylvain: Wow. Where were you?
Ray: We were out at Lake Marina. It's a San Diego, east county. And um, there was a bunch of rainstorms recently. I'm sure they hit Arizona too. And uh, so everything is joyously soaking up all that precious water out there in the desert, so it's going to be nice.
Sylvain: Do you guys camp out there?
Ray: Uh, yeah, we um, several years ago much to, even our surprise, we got a little tiny RV and it's our home away from home and uh, we take it out all the time, um, especially on quick weekends because I still have to work for a living and so that means that I come back during the week and so we both grind it out during the week and then we run away on the weekends.
Sylvain: Well, it sounds like a lot of fun. Um, did you bring an instrument with you on that trip?
Ray: Uh, I did. I brought, uh, it's always, I always wonder which one I'm going to bring. And I have a lot of different handpans and uh, so I try each one out right before I leave and I'm like, okay, you're coming with me. So, and, and Laura plays her mountain dulcimer and she just retunes it on the fly and we have fun.
Sylvain: Oh, that's awesome. Well, I'm really excited to sit down and chat with you. It's fun because, um, typically I start these conversations with asking, uh, my guest, my friend, what their first discovery of the instrument was. But with you, I actually got to relive that first discovery because you posted a youtube video on our Facebook group, which I'll link in the show notes, but it's, it was amazing to be there with you on that first day to hear your questions. Um, so really briefly, if you want to summarize what that first experience was and also walk us through what the journey between the first discovery and then when you got your own handpan looked like.
Ray: Oh, well, sure. Because I think about that day a lot even now. Um, so at my children's school, we were there for a harvest festival and we get there early and all the vendors are sending up and there's sound stages and there's artists that are doing their things. And I come around the corner and there's this guy playing this instrument. Uh, it was, uh, now looking back, it was an integral Hang. Um, so it had that brass top and it had a brass rim. Um, many had face paint on and, and I think he was playing it on. Of course he had this half circle of folks, uh, deep around him. And I pushed my way through and I was just just in amazement. Um, I had never seen anything like it. I don't play a music instrument or haven't played a music instrument. I've played a little bit of percussion in my medieval reenactment, but I mean, nothing too. Nothing really formal or anything like that. And I saw this and I was just drawn in and, uh, I went and got Laura and I grabbed her and I'm like, have you seen this thing. Have you seen this guy? Have you seen this thing? And, uh, then of course, you know, the video has me asking. It's almost embarrassing now to go back and listen. But I mean those are really the questions that everyone asks, right? I mean, when we, when we play we're like what is that thing and where can I get one? And you know, so, Hey, I see you're playing two notes at the same time. And, uh, he was very gracious and he would stop his plane and of course his daughter was in the way and she, you know, she wanted the camera on. Which of course any daughter would want. Anyway, I followed this guy around all day long and, uh, you know, to clock in the afternoon, he'd look up to the semi circle of people and I was there again and he's like, you again. And I'm like, yes. So, I mean, I could tell that I was hooked.
Ray: So let's see, I get home and, uh, you get on the inner webs and I look up Hang Drum and uh, this is in 2008. So you look up hang drum in 2008 and you're going to pretty much get hang drum. That is all you're going to get. You're going to get hang. And then, so I found several forums. I found uh, the Hang Forum, so I'll interchange hang and hang. I know that there's a proper way to say it. Yeah. Um, I found the, the real hang forum and then there was an offshoot, um, Eh, uh Huh. Hang dash Music, forum. Um, and that was the predecessor to um, handpan.org. Yeah. And in those days, um, so you know what you're reading about a maybe a little bit of controversy of, of people trying to branch out and make this instrument again and really there was only one place to get it. And the thing that I saw was this thing called the Hang. And uh, you had to write a physical letter and your letter had to be accepted. Um, and then you had to go pick it up in person and it, I mean it went from total, oh have to have this thing. It's going to be so awesome to get home. And, um, my goodness, it's completely out of reach. Um, and that, that's, um, that was, uh, that was tough to deal with.
Sylvain: That's kind of a crushing feeling and I'm trying to put myself in your shoes when I experienced the instrument, you know, being from France, Switzerland was the country next door and it still felt unattainable. But for you halfway across the world, that's even more out of reach.
Ray: Oh yeah, absolutely. And I'm not a traveler. And so to think of myself as, oh, I'm going to go over and get this specific instrument and deal with, um, a foreign country, foreign languages and things like that, fairly introvert and, uh, uh, get fairly anxious about those kinds of things. So like that was, it was not going to happen. Uh, so let's see. Uh, uh, a year goes by and a startup company called Pantheon steel is starting to come up with sound models, but they're not releasing them yet because they're not satisfied with their sound. Um, but I got on their waiting list. Um, and certainly you can discuss them on the forum and to, you know, we were all excited about any information that we can get a, but at that point you sort of have to put it out of your mind. This is not something that is going to wind up in your lap. Right. Uh, so, um, there was a one in 10 possibility of this coming through kind of thing. Um, but then they said, okay, we're ready to start. And I knew that I was on the waiting list. And so now you just have to wait your turn. And I think I was #149, so that came up in like December of 2009. And, uh, Aaron gave me a call and said, what scale do you want? Um, and this was before you're like, oh, this, I'm overwhelmed with Scales and, uh, I don't know anything about scales. And I just wrote back and I said, whatever you think I might like. And he had no idea who I was and I'm, I put this out there, whatever you think I might like. And he writes back and he says, I have just the scale for you and this is, boy, I really liked this kind of stuff. This is serendipity. And uh, I love the whole concept of serendipity of things happening, how you wouldn't necessarily have imagined it and they just do. So he picks a minor pentatonic, it's seven notes and it's first gen and it's deep, booming sound and it gets delivered to my doorstep on a, on a Saturday afternoon. The ups guy shows up. Um, I think it was like August 14th, I want to say like 1:15 in the afternoon, you know, it's like one of those things where, uh, and you do the unboxing. I have this unboxing video in my head. I'm not going to show it to you because it's in my head, but I can describe it. And so you unbox it and uh, and there it is and there's no, there's no instructions. And I didn't youtube vid because there wasn't any, there wasn't any, I don't, reason to I guess like why would I?
Sylvain: It wasn't the mindset at the time. You wouldn't even think about looking up a how to.
Ray: Yeah. Like a how to or like what am I supposed to do with this thing? And so now I'm just, I'm tapping on the notes and I'm trying to remember back to what I saw, you know, a couple of years before and it was just an absolute amazing, um, uh, afternoon and uh, I have, you know, um, some pictures that I look back on fondly of, of what it was first delivered and it's still one of my favorite instruments. In fact, I just played my 60-second handpan challenge on it even after all these years.
Sylvain: That's beautiful. And I love how the, your choice of scale was totally removed from a traditional business transaction. Right? Which color do you want? Which size? And it reminds me of my conversation with Dan Price who also made this point that for him, handpans are totally outside of the realm of consumerism. And, and for you, it sounds like your experience, even the choice of this scale was removed, separated from a normal experience. It was remarkable from the start.
Ray: Yeah. And that's interesting too because I've seen a lot of people put a lot of thought and effort into choosing a scale and then say, you know what, I don't like it. And then they ended up like sending it back in or swapping it out or trading it or something like that. And I, um, there's a very big part of my approach to this and in that is, um, there's something, and I think this is approach to life too. There is something about this that is magical and I have to find that magic. And if it's hidden from me in the beginning, I find that even more, I dunno, alluring and fascinating. So I think it's more a reflection of myself in not being able to appreciate what I have rather than wanting something else that I've heard. So this fact that, you know, the, the choice of scales was more or less picked randomly out of, Hey, I think, uh, I want something like this, uh, with them going, we know exactly what you want and then having that happen and uh, and it worked out that way.
Sylvain: And how did that journey evolve now that you had your halo?
Ray: Uh, well, it's interesting that these, well first off, I didn't know anyone else that owned one. Right. And I didn't even know the local guy. Like I didn't even get his name. It was a, even though I have video of that, I didn't even get his name so it wouldn't have anyway, uh, so you're, you're by yourself. Um, and so for myself, I would practice these things and, and I did look up a couple of how to videos and there were a couple of videos that were in there. I came across Colin's name and, uh, he got me in touch, cause Colin was local to San Diego and I didn't really realize that. And I, he invited me up to his place and, um, we had a great time and I got to play his, uh, instruments and, uh, he got to play an MP9 for the first time. And you know, I mean, it was like right in the beginning of, for him, uh, as well. And, um, he invited me over to my first jam session. And so there's a, a local guy, his name is John, and we know him as ObiJohn on the forum and a, it was a guy there named Alex too. Anyway, you find yourself in the middle of this jam. So like, I don't know how to play or I don't know how to play very well and you're in somebody's living room and everyone says, let's go right. I, this is the typical gathering kind of of, of, of first encounter. And so now you're, you're with these folks and they start on a jam and you try a note and it doesn't work and then you, uh, you cringe and then you try another note and it works. And you know, by the end of the night, um, we, you know, we are all fast friends and uh, it was really super. Um, so that's the first part of your question. And then you're like, when did I go out and actually start sharing this? And I think that once, once I got fairly comfortable with what I was playing, even the most simple things I would want to go out and share, which is really weird, right? I mean, so if you're an introvert, you don't want to go do this. But then I just had this compulsion to go down to like Balboa Park at night and find a acoustic spaces and then play. And then if anyone walked past awesome, if they didn't walk past, I was there in an acoustic space and I was playing. So for me just getting out and to, in trying that instrument in other places, not necessarily to show others saying, Hey, look at this thing. Um, uh, it was more of a, this is just an instrument that has to go out and, and be around and just be on your back and, and be everywhere.
Sylvain: I love that because I relate to your personality type and yet I do feel that compulsion as well to, to share the instrument. I think it's fun to take your instrument in different places, different environments to take the music with you. Um, so it's cool that, that you took those steps, especially at a time when the persona of your typical hang drum player was dread head dudes. Um, uh, and a lot of us don't fit that persona. How did you deal with, um, sort of the image that was out there of this instrument that you played and sort of your own experience with it?
Ray: Yeah. So yeah. Yeah. I'm like this corporate corporate guy, you know, older dude and I have this handpan, I'm going to go out and jam on the street. It's hilarious when, when I go back and I look at it, um, but it does bring me back to, I was very active on the forums and there was this one forum handpan.org and there was this one video that came out and a, I don't even know the name of the guy, but he was going to go about making a handpan out of a wok and a, it's a two part and, but he starts with in the, in the first unknown minute, minute and a half, he's like, I saw this youtube vid and who doesn't want to be this guy? And he freezes it and it's Swarup jamming out on the street and a black hoodie. Like who doesn't want to be this guy in a black hoodie? And that got me to thinking because really who doesn't want to be that guy, I've put him in a meme years ago is like one of the first hand pan means too, uh, and uh, anyway, so I started a forum talk topic called the psychology of the Black Hoodie. Um, and in that, um, I found I always come at things a little bit different. So, uh, I don't come at it normally and it's a trait of mine on, and it's gotten me pretty far. And I think the ability to see things a little bit differently, not in the traditional fashion, um, is good. And so I said one of the things, so I went out and bought a Hoodie because I'm like, okay, I have to try this. And so you put on a Hoodie and when you go out, when you put up the hood on a Hoodie, the rest of the world disappears. So there is no left and right in your periphery anymore. Um, there's only your instrument. So if you're nervous about playing in public, uh, so you're, you sit down on the park bench and you put the instrument and there's all these people walking past the hood comes over your head and the world disappears. And now you have this focus that is in front of you. And I found that a fascinating concept. So I posted about it and it really took off. And everyone had these, uh, these really interesting takes on, you know, a Hoodie, um, and the, the whole psychology of the black Hoodie and that it's more than a garment and then it's more than um, uh, what it stands for. In fact, my daughter even got involved at the time I was reading, uh, the Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck. And she says, did you ever notice she was in eighth grade and she had had that as an assignment. She says, one of the things about the Grapes of Wrath and Steinbeck is he introduced his, all of his characters through their hands. So in the first paragraph of the chapter when a new character came along, Steinbeck would describe them through their hands, described their hands. And I thought, ha ha, how awesome. So if you're in a, you know, so you have the black Hoodie on, the hood is over your head, you're playing this instrument. What does the only visible thing to the outside?
Sylvain: The hands...
Ray: The hands and we always called handpan playing or Hang playing listening hands. Right. I mean, this goes back to this, this idea that, that, um, it plays you and you play it. So this listening hands and I just, I almost get a shiver even thinking about it now, just like it was right up my spine thinking about listening hands and having this, uh, uh, this idea of that being the only visible thing. So that brings me to the next chapter of my story in that is, Gerald, uh, get, uh, he owned the forum at the time and it was so enthralled with that topic. He wrote me a private message and he says, would you like to be an admin on the, on the forum? And I'm like me being an Admin, uh, sure, I guess. And so it's kind of what I do at my work. Um, I help people through things. I mediate a, I also am a kind of a techno nerd. And so I know a lot of the things on the technology side. I know how to divide threads and add threads and delete and moderate in a reasonable way. Um, so I said, sure. I'm not exactly sure what I think about that decision in hindsight, but that's what got me involved in this and that that really took off. Um, as far as like my involvement in the community in handpan knowledge, it was almost like a fire hose I went from, remember we just talked about playing it for yourself, almost shutting out the world, a sort of Hoodie concept to uh oh, firehose. And you pull the thing back and here comes all the information and not a lot, not a little information, but like a whole world of information, uh, because now you're involved in almost every conversation
Sylvain: And so you went, you went really deep. Did, did you ever go too deep in that and that knowledge in that information overload?
Ray: Um, well, sure. Um, but it, when you're in the middle of it, you ride it like a wave, right? So this is, uh, uh, it's opening up a new world, so, right, so you have this, uh, when you start getting really deeply involved in these conversations or perhaps where people are at on their journeys. And not only that, um, we know that, uh, there, there was a divide, there was the old Hang community and there was the new handPan Community and, um, it was fairly oil and water in the beginning. So when people would post about those things, I would find myself straddling the two communities with one foot in each. Um, uh, just trying to moderate to try to create a space. Um, so I found my, I found myself getting, um, yeah, I don't know, maybe a little too, like too responsible, like feeling like I had to solve or be the person to solve. Um, and so I took that role super serious for several years and yeah, it did get to a point where, um, uh, it was too much. And, uh, I remember Michael Colley, uh, telling me, you know, the world doesn't have to be addressed in a day, Ray...
Ray: At this time in my life, I was also putting myself back to school. So I had started computer graphics back in 1981 without a degree. And I was like cad drafter. And I did it for years and years and years. And years and, uh, very a good career. And I got into management, but I hit a ceiling and my manager said, if you don't get a degree, you really can't go farther than this. So I think it was like 47 years old or something like that. 46, 47. I find myself back in college, uh, uh, eh, crazy, right?
Ray: And so now I'm, you're taking classes and uh, I have, uh, the degrees in organizational behavior, so it's right up my alley and it's sort of like a lot of things that we've talked about being able to moderate between people, hold spaces, social dynamics, group, dynamic group dynamics. Uh, but there was also like, he had to take lit classes, literature classes and things like that. And so here I am for the first time taking a class in literature and then breaking down storytelling. And up until this point, let's just pull one of my favorites, the hobbit. So I have read the hobbit since I was a little kid and uh, I've read it a lot. And to me it was just a story. And you take literature in college and it breaks it down into these constituent parts. And it, I dunno, kind of ruin the story for me for awhile. Um, uh, just like, uh, I was with a friend who was a film person and we were watching star wars for the umpteenth time and he pointed out how, spoiler alert, there are black mats around each of the planes in the sky during the, the, the, uh, during the, uh, starship fights. Yeah. And then, so now I can't watch star wars without seeing the little black Matte Square. And I'm like the egg man. So like, and it was the same thing. So, uh, I will link all three of those. Right? So the deconstructing inside literature or film making or even handpan playing, right. So there was this, uh, this innocence of, I don't even know what to do with this thing. It just showed up Saturday afternoon to, I know everything about this thing, all of the different makes and styles. I know for a while I knew all of the different, um, makers as they would come online, where they were, what they were making, what the sound model was like, what the quality was, um, and so yeah, there was a lot of information that was coming and uh, it, you get kind of, I dunno, I'm jaded I guess, if you will. So it made me pull away a little bit, but let me add something in here. I did go to a lot of festivals, right? So after meeting John and Colin and Alex in John's living room, uh, I went to my first hand pan event and that was handpangea at laughing waters in North Carolina and it was an awesome event. Um, really awesome event. I mean, I got to meet, you know, all of my heroes from the forum and I got to meet Dante and I got to meet Danny Sorensen in and I got to meet all these people. And like, and it was in the days of the very first, you know, there wasn't really workshops per se and everyone just kind of hung out and jammed. Uh, but that started me going to all of these events and because I was moderator of the forum, people would pull me aside and say, by the way, did you know, or hey, I have a question for you and I would walk another 10 feet and people would pull me aside and say, I have a question for you. So the position that I found myself in was in this teacher leader position. Um, and that took away the fun too.
Sylvain: Yeah. And I remember those days and, and I think we all probably added fuel to the fire. Um, this phrase got coined, What Would Ray Say as a spin off of, what would Jesus say bracelets. Um, and I'm sure it was fun for a while, but it's a big responsibility, um, on, on your shoulders to, to walk around and, and the expectation being that you're going to be that guy while really how it started for you was the magic. You just were entranced and drawn in by the sound and you wanted that.
Ray: Yeah, I wanted it back. Yeah. The, what would ray say? You know, so you find yourself, like I say, straddling all these different, the two different communities or, um, uh, multiple conversations, um, sometimes in, in conversations that are quite tense. Um, and I would pull out some sort of phrase and just like make it better. And I remember the, what would ray say was from Mark Garner from Saraz and, and mark wrote me and he goes, man, I don't know how you do, but you just like, you're able to like thread this needle of conversation and, and make it come out in the end better. So I show up to a Pantasia, which is out here in Joshua tree, and they, everyone had tee shirts that said, what would ray say? And, uh, like, I dunno, like as you said, uh, it's an offshoot of a phrase, uh, after a very, uh, influential person. Shal we say, and I was like, oh. Oh my goodness.
Sylvain: So how did you sort of take steps back from, from that? Did you, I guess a re-find, a new balance?
Ray: Yeah, so a great story on that. So I was down, uh, mission bay park, so down on the waterfront and I'm playing MP9, it was still the original, it's one of my goto. So anywhere I go that things almost always on my back and I'm playing on a park bench down there in this woman and her daughter walkover and they listen and I stop and uh, she asked me about the instrument, uh, and I tell her, I don't know how the conversation, this is one of those serendipity things, how those, how the conversation wandered into this. But I said when I grow up or when I retire, I call retiring growing up, when I grow up, I want to play in palliative care or hospice care. I think that I would like to do that. And she says, I happened to be in charge of Gentiva hospice. She was like the executive director of Gentiva hospice. And I'm like, how weird is that? It's you whips out the card and she says, if you're interested, give us a call. And I went down, uh, I got an interview and uh, uh, I took a bunch of classes and I started doing hospice work. Um, some of the toughest and most rewarding work in my life. This is a couple of years ago. Um, and so when you find yourself at the bedside of someone who was dying, um, they don't care about ding bends. Uh, they don't care about the history of the handpan. They don't really, they don't care about all that I'm going to call all that dross, all the, all the heaviness around all of that information. What needs to come out at that time when you're by the bedside is the most beautiful thing that you could possibly make. So I found it just completely changed my point of view, both to my music and what I was sharing because I needed to play the most beautiful music in the world, I felt like. And so like my patterns went away. My approach to the instrument went away and it went almost like all the way back to square one. And it was awesome. I was finding things that I would never play in. You're not wafting notes and you're not like doing all this fancy stuff and you're not playing fast because that's not what somebody in that time of their life needs. Um, and so I think my hospice work really changed my, my approach and really made me want to focus on what it was that I had to share with the world.