August 3 is Tony Bennett’s birthday. Please join The Year of Tony Bennett in wishing Tony a very happy 86th birthday.
I’ve thought long and hard about an appropriate way to wish Mr. Bennett a happy birthday that both acknowledges what his music and art means to me and hopes for his happiness in life going forward.
Then today in the car I was listening to National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation program, which today featured Dr. Ellen Langer, a psychologist from Harvard, who was speaking about her new book, Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility and her previous book Mindfulness.
In this half-hour program, which includes call-ins, she discusses her research on living mindfully and the health benefits that it brings to people. She believes that as we all age, the more we are able to live in the moment, in the “now”, the less our minds and bodies age and the younger we stay. Her study of with the group of older men in their 80s (back, she says, when 80 meant 80, not the 60s like it does now), that the group who lived in the moment began to grow younger before her eyes: arthritic fingers began to straighten, they stood taller, and generally looked much younger at the end of the two-week study than they did before.
I have often thought about how remarkable Tony Bennett is at this age. He exhibits eternal youth and joy and wonder when I’ve seen his live performances in the last year; he’s always smiling and always has a spring in his step that I envy, even though I’m twenty-four years his junior. In the Seattle concert I attended in December, 2011, the woman seated next to me (a complete stranger) turned to me at one point and said “he’s like a little boy who just did something wonderful and is incredibly pleased and amazed.” And sure enough, Tony Bennett was standing there with his hands on his hips and a big smile on his face at the close of that song.
But in hearing listening to Dr. Langer, it all became clear. He does live in the “now” and is always present in the moment, whether he is on stage or painting. This is the clear definition of mindfulness and is a major tenet of Zen practice. The Zen of Bennett isn’t just a phrase; it’s a true reflection of how he seems to live his life. In her writings and in the interview, Dr. Langer talks about the importance of noticing new things, “paying attention to variability” in life, living in the moment.
As a musician and a painter, Mr. Bennett does this each and every day. I’ve heard him live four times (and it will be seven times by the end of September 2012) with the same Quartet singing many of the same songs: each of those performances are completely different. Different nuances, slightly different tempo, and certainly variances in the emotional presence behind the song. I’ve heard the same song and arrangement go from playful to joyous to wistful and even sometimes to edgy. He never just comes out on stage and does the exact thing he did yesterday; it’s always about that moment in time, in that city, in that hall, with that audience. With his enormous gifts as a singer and performer, he never “phones it in.” It’s always in the now. And today I learned from Dr. Langer that this way of living your life is as close as any of us can come to the fountain of youth.
I’m embedding the recording of Dr. Langer from Talk of the Nation. It’s a thirty minute program. There’s a very interesting piece at the very end (27:25) about how this applies especially to musicians and artists. If you’d like to know more about Dr. Langer’s work on mindfulness, please visit her website at www.ellenlanger.com.
For iPad and iPhone users, here’s the link to a non-Flash version. The rest of you can listen here. And again, Happy Birthday to Tony Bennett. Thanks for everything.