Play by Not Playing

Introducing Taoism into your piano world
Recently, I have been studying the wisdom of the Tao, seeing how I can implement it into my own life and trying to generally find some kind of sense to life.  Having achieved a satisfying result, it came to me during a piano lesson that applying Taoism to playing and teaching is actually quite marvellous and yielded some surprisingly instant results both in myself and others.

In this article, targeted at both piano players and teachers, I simply wish to share the Tao with you for your own benefit and discuss how its message can be applied to pianism, rather than turning myself into some self-appointed Life Guru.  For an excellent LG, however:  WayneDyer.  Anyhow, I digress.

The Tao is a set of 81 verses written over 2,500 years ago, it is said, by Lao Tzu.  No matter who wrote it, the point was to provide a clear understanding of the world and how, by merely seeing things, it seems to me, in the purest, most natural way possible, one is able to achieve success in all aspects of life, even pianism.  It sounds impossible, but it truly is not.

The basic message of Tao appears to be:  'do, by not doing', or 'action, through non-action'.  Despite seemingly contradictory, it must be understood that life philosophies are not meant to be taken at face value but to be internalised, understood, realised and applied fully.  I hasten to add that there are literally thousands of translations of this text, so you will perhaps have to spend time to find one which works for you.  Here is mine.  Perhaps you'll find another.

How I came to be introduced to the Tao was by two simple examples: a belt and shoes.  The belt only does what it does best if you cannot feel it doing it.  Or, it is the act of non-action that the belt achieves its purpose.  The same goes for shoes: a comfortable pair of shoes are not felt, so it is their quality of non-sensation which allows them to achieve their purpose.  These opposite ideologies somehow make sense in this way.  Here is one of my favourite verses, number 11, which discusses this idea of 'non-existence':

Thirty spokes join in one hub;
In its emptiness, there is the function of a vehicle.
Mix clay to create a container;
In its emptiness, there is the function of a container.
Cut open doors and windows to create a room;
In its emptiness, there is the function of a room.
Therefore, that which exists is used to create benefit;
That which is empty is used to create functionality.

In my own life, I began to identify areas that were not making me content.  I quickly realised that these areas (particularly composing music and writing my novels) were not progressing as I had hoped since I was using a kind of force, of impatience, to make them happen, thus they did not happen.  Thanks to the Tao teachings, I now understand that it is through non-action that I will achieve success in my ventures and as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, I was able to suddenly finish two compositions and write half a chapter in my book.  It can be said, now I understand, that I 'was written', rather than 'I wrote'.

As pianists, we tend to waste our energy on frustration, fear or negativity in progressing to greater realms of technique.  I would like to be the first to tell you:  frustrate not, fear not, and obliterate your negativity.  Instead of being fearful, become curious about what you fear.

What do you fear? Not being able to remember a piece of music?  What frustrates you?  Messing up parallel scales with both hands in particular keys?  Consider adopting the basic idea of the Tao and simply do not try to remember; do not force parallel scales.  Does this mean 'do not do anything'?

No.  Look at this:

To know that you do not know is highest;
To not know but think you know is flawed.
Only when one recognises the fault as a fault,
can one be without fault.
The sages are without fault
Because they recognise the fault as a fault;
That is why they are without fault.

... and this:

Nothing in the world is softer or weaker than water,
Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.
This is because nothing can replace it.

Do you see that it is due to your forcing, your lack of trust in your natural state of being?  You are a sage currently unable to play your scales and forgets your piece.  If you begin to trust in yourself, no matter what your ego (the FALSE self) says, you will remember, or play, better than by 'trying' or 'forcing'.  Try to comprehend 'being remembered' by the music; try to imagine 'being played' by your parallel scales.

By becoming that which you wish to be, it becomes you.  Again, this does not mean you can turn yourself into an aeroplane; let's be a little mature, here.  You wish to become the one who remembers, so let the music become you; the action of 'remembering' will be made redundant since you are already the music and it is you.  How can you forget yourself?  Be the parallel scales, the finger movements and the layout on the keyboard; the act of 'trying to play' them will be made redundant since you are already them and they are you.  Again, it is by non-action, by being at one with the Tao, that which is in everything, matter or idea, that all ego-related issues are removed.

Here is a suitable verse for now:

Act without action,
Manage without meddling,
Taste without tasting.
Great, small, many, few;
Respond to hatred with virtue.
Plan difficult tasks through the simplest tasks;
Achieve large tasks through the smallest tasks.
The difficult tasks of the world
Must be handled through the simple tasks.
The large tasks of the world
Must be handled through the small tasks.
Therefore, sages never attempt great deeds all through life,
Thus they can achieve greatness.
One who makes promises lightly must deserve little trust.
One who sees many easy tasks must encounter much difficulty.
Therefore, sages regard things as difficult
So they never encounter difficulties all through life.

As a teacher, consider being a little less strict with your students.  If you do not already, perhaps ask them about their progress and opinions of how they play, if they feel they are going in a natural direction (just as water) and if there is something they would like you to do more or less of.  Students are generally polite so you don't know what they say or think about you outside of their lessons once home.  Perhaps they are simply being polite that they enjoy a course book, or a particular piece, trusting you to guide them on their path, whereas in fact they may find a piece quite boring or not challenging enough but would never say so.

Perhaps consider allowing students to have more say in the lessons if you do not already, since just because you are a qualified teacher, it doesn't mean you're a psychologist, life coach, natural motivator, even exceptionally brilliant pianist yourself (based on some comments I've seen online which shall continue to astonish me), so no offence need be taken in my casual suggestion.

At the beginning of my third piano book, I have written the following: "It [the book] is made exciting not only by my input, but by the progress to be made by you following your own efforts.  I am merely a distant advisor, living by the famous quote of Albert Einstein, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge”.  It is my way of saying:  be yourself, let the Tao exist within you and I will simply give you some tips and ideas along your most natural path.

So, why did I write this article?

Because I understand that there are many piano students who are struggling with a huge variety of piano difficulties and sometimes no book, video or private teacher can help them overcome these difficulties.  It seems like no amount of practice or advice helps.  By taking ideologies from the teachings of the Tao, I believe, from my own experiences in such a short amount of time, that the truest answer to your problems is:  play, by not playing.  I invite you to make of this what you will, and thank you for reading this unique, but hopefully inspiring article.

Think about this final image; it's not only about travelling in the literal sense, you see?