Stop Asking Questions

You play fine without them!

If only I could banish all pianists' needs for seeking answers; I would surely be seen a cruel, unjust individual, wishing only to discourage, demotivate and even impede the avid learner's quest for knowledge and eventual attainment of perfection.

The truth of the matter, paradoxically, is that asking too many questions in itself plays a significant part in experiencing feelings of discouragement, for example: if a point is not understood, it can then lead to demotivation and thus impede genuine ability, the reason being that one feels a sense of frustration at the lack of understanding, believing such to be a genuine hindrance to physical ability.

(Consider my new eBook: Water Pianism)

Newcomers to the creative arts tend to believe that theory is foundational to ability.  It is not.  Theory is simply the 2D representation (words) of a 3D world (music, sculpture, dance, etc.); it does not replace it, it simply tries its limited best to describe it.  One is to understand that 10,000 words describing the taste of an orange shall never replace one bite.

It is possible to spend a few weeks digesting pages and pages of musical encyclopaedias and feel really good about yourself for acquiring some interesting knowledge.  One may learn about the history of music, genres from all over the world, popular names/composers, theory of scales, chords and harmony, sight-reading notation, rhythm, et al, but one is strongly advised to never forget the simple rule:  theory doesn't make the player!  Simply acquire knowledge as and when is required for your own unique, musical journey.

I'll be honest:  I've read the whole Wikipedia page linked above on music theory.  It took about two days, a few repeats and clicking on a few links for further reading and I acquired some interesting facts I did not know about, especially surrounding the history and global aspects, but nothing learnt has changed my inherent ability.  My body is not stronger and my fingers are no more dexterous than the weeks and months before that intense reading session; nor would yours be.

I would say that the three most common problems for newcomers to piano are:  hand/finger independence, a sense of rhythm and a kind of fear of playing wrong notes.  In improvisation, this is not such a bad thing since you can just say "That's what I felt like playing", and since it's jazz/free improv, you can kind of get away with it, but playing a Chopin Nocturne, no such luck... they are so often played that any wrong note stands out like a sore thumb.  I shall expand upon these points in a moment, but first...

The simple answer to all the above, and more, is:  striving for perfection, either by exerting excessive physical effort or asking too many questions and seeking the treasure chest of golden answers as if it should suddenly make you what you want to be is as futile as clasping water between your hands and expecting it to stay there.

Water teaches us about every aspect of life.  In the context of this article, from water we learn that force, clasping, holding on, or any other such synonym for 'desperation', causes water to flee.  In fact, it does not flee of its own volition, it is simply pushed away, ejected; the grip is lost... the answer is never obtained, or if it is, ability remains unaffected and the seeker may remain disappointed.  This is a vicious cycle which must be stopped immediately.

The only way to hold water, which here is being used as a metaphor of 'playing with greater sensitivity, accuracy and control' is to make no effort; it is only in non-action and stillness that water remains in your hands and it does so until you wish for it leave or become impatient and lose it all.

Be still.  Stop believing that 2D knowledge can assist you in your 3D world of pianism and music.  No amount of reading or spoken words can replace the experience of actually listening and playing with a still, relaxed mind.  I understand, of course, that this is very difficult to accept because your Ego is shouting out loud because it knows it is under attack, but stick to it!  It is wrong, and it knows it, that is why it fights back.  This is exactly why my first advice to most piano questions is: leave the piano and deal with the mind... body follows, then music flows.

Above, I wrote that the three most common issues with newcomers are: hand/finger independence, a sense of rhythm and being afraid of what may be called, varying a little depending on the specific issue, but in general, a 'lack of finger precision'.

As linked above, I already have a video on the Illusion of Hand Independence but a few words can still be shared here for consistency.

Many pianists of many experience levels seek a magic answer to the question: Is there a way to be able to play without my left hand and right hand not being able to do two different things at the same time?

Instead of saying: do practice exercises and it will eventually improve, as I have seen this question answered too many times online, a teacher would do well to encourage (read: force, gently) the enquirer to come to recognise and accept that one does not play with two hands, but ten fingers.  This shift in mentality somehow assists in overcoming the independence belief because one starts to see each finger as '1' instead of 1-5 on both sides.

Many times I have heard:  "I don't have a sense of rhythm.  How can I get one?"  Once again, the answer is within and with stillness, the sense of rhythm comes.  One could read all the books ever written on rhythm; it will not enlighten you as to your true, innate sense of rhythm.  The reason it cannot be felt is because the Ego is blocking you from discovering it because it makes you believe that you must understand something intellectually rather than in a way beyond words.

A sense of rhythm, should one believe they 'don't have one', is only discoverable through belief that it exists already, and by listening.  One may compare listening and the sense of rhythm coming from within, or showing itself, to that of a man who is searching for a stone without ever realising it was in his pocket all along.  The reason he never felt it was because he was frantically searching for it, so neither the weight nor feel of the stone was ever detected; he was in constant search mode.

By finally sitting still, he detected the abnormal weight, investigated its origins and pulled out the stone, never to lose it again.

Fear of what one plays comes from the Ego's need of perfection.  This is a futile need and must simply be brought under control.  I am reminded of a teaching:  a bad thought is like an unwelcome guest in one's home; he enters via the back door, be sure not to serve him tea, and show him the way out via the front door, never entertaining him or giving him the slightest hint that you wish him to return.

You must accept that you will never play perfectly, absolute precision is simply impossible (you may get lucky once, but that was luck!) and any fear which may be restricting your natural flow, as in the story, must be treated as an unwelcome guest... but how to do this?

Sitting in front of the piano and counting 30 inhalations and exhalations will calm your mind.  If you do this every. single. time. before you play the piano (whether just before a performance behind the scenes, but you can still do it a few times in front of an audience; they will appreciate the results, or before a practice session), you will be very surprised at how happy, uninterrogative and cleanly you play, along with having a heightened sensitivity and calmer persona.

***

In conclusion, do not strive for perfection; your ever-increasing excellence will be noted by others around you, but always remain humble for you will never reach true perfection, only journey towards its mirage.

Once again, I am reminded of a teaching which I shall end with.  Think about it for a few days and try to identify yourself in the story.

"A priest was in charge of the garden within a famous Zen temple.  He had been given the job because he loved the flowers and trees.  Next to the temple, there was another, smaller temple where there lived a very old Master.   One day, when the priest was expecting some special guests, he took extra care in tending to the garden.  He pulled the weeds, trimmed the shrubs, combed the moss and spent a long time meticulously raking up and carefully arranging all the dry autumn leaves.  As he worked, the old master watched him with interest from across the wall that separated the temples.

When he had finished, the priest stood back to admire his work.  "Isn't it beautiful?" he called out to the old Master.  "Yes," replied the old man, "but there is something missing.  Help me over this wall and I'll put it right for you."

After hesitating, the priest lifted the old fellow over and set him down.  Slowly, the master walked to the tree near the centre of the garden, grabbed it by the trunk and shook it!  Leaves showered down all over the once-perfect garden.

"There," said the Master, "you can put me back now."



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