Playing the Piano as a Spiritual Path

At age fifteen, I quit seven years of piano lessons, quit playing the piano, and heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe my mother had some regrets, but no one else. Ten years later in graduate school, I made it final and gave my music away to a friend — I was never going to play the piano again.

Who would have guessed that a grand piano and harpsichord would eventually fill my living room and that I would play almost every day until my back aches! Yet this is not the piano-playing of my youth. Some of the pieces are the same and my fingers may hit the same notes in the same order, but what I intend and experience at the keyboard is totally different.

It took me all these years to figure out what was most important in life, and to use the keyboard to practice — not just playing the piano, but living according to my highest values and purposes. Living this way is what I call following a spiritual path, and briefly it means for me to love, to learn, and to pour good energy into the world. How might I play this as a prayer?

In order to follow this path when I sit down at the keyboard, I must practice staying mindful of my purpose, the same purpose of loving, growing, and expressing that I have for all the rest of my life. So I play like I live — for the love of it. Not to “work up” or memorize a piece, not to play for others, but for the love of playing. This is my overriding value, the “bottom line” by which I make my choices at the keyboard: I intend to appreciate, delight in, love every moment from the time I open the instrument to the time I close it. Whatever I do or think, I do or think for that single purpose. I’ve learned a few rules of thumb that work to keep me on my path, and my major practice is to hold them in mind. Here they are:

I sight-read lots of different pieces and come back to the ones that I like and that are technically within my reach. I’ve learned to keep my eyes almost always on the music rather than the keyboard because I can’t jump them back and forth between keys and score accurately and quickly. Thus I conceive and create the line of music from the printed score, rather than from alternately glancing at my hands and then trying to find my place in the music.

When I raise my hands, I relax and warm my fingers to caress the instrument. My fingers are not the “little hammers” that I was taught, but a part of me that touches the keys with love, the part that physically evokes emotion from the instrument, to which I listen with rapt attention.

I use the piece to feel, express, and hear the music I make at this moment, not to imitate the sound some professional pianist put onto a record or “the way the composer intended.” Renditions I may have heard, and even tempo, phrasing, and loudness markings on the score are simply suggestions for me to use as I wish. They just guide and motivate me to play it the unique way I am playing it. A critic might call my playing too slow or too hammy, but I’m not playing for a critic. I’m playing for me, for the depth of my experience.

I could use any activity as a spiritual path. And, in fact, I try to use them all. But playing the piano is perfect for this purpose because I so frequently make mistakes and fall short of my ideal. No matter how skillful I may be, my ideals run way ahead of my skills. While this is true in all areas of living, nowhere else do I get to experience its truth so many times an hour! I am forever hitting keys mechanically, pausing to search for chords, playing wrong notes, playing whole sections in the wrong key, falling apart mid-way through a piece that I “used to be able to play beautifully.” There is no end to the number of expected and unexpected ways I disappoint myself at the keyboard. So there is no end to the opportunities the piano gives me to notice my short-falls, learn what I can from them, and re-commit to my path, with all my heart. Thus I practice an important part of my spiritual path — accepting my lot as a fallible human being and making the most of it.

Finally, piano playing brings up so many issues I have about other people, especially that question that dominates the lives of so many of us — “What will they think of me?” I have made a couple simple decisions about other people: First, if a friend can sit down and play a piece far better than I could dream of, that’s nice for my friend. It doesn’t affect me and how I play. I play the piano for myself, for the same reason my canary sings: “Hello, world, this is me playing, isn’t it great!” I’m pouring my best energy into the world. To me, that is prayer. What the world does with it is its business.

If people are listening to me, I let them. They may enjoy my playing or they may not. They may praise me or wish I’d shut up. Whatever they hear is with their ears and their background; it is not what I hear. If someone says a piece should be played twice as fast as I play it, I’m happy for the chance they offer to strengthen my skill at walking my path. I just say, “Oh, I suppose so,” and with no apologies go back to my path and my music. No deflated ego and no loss of enthusiasm. If someone compliments a piece, I take it to mean simply that they enjoyed hearing it. And I just say, “Thank you,” and absolutely refuse to second-guess their judgment. No denials and no puffed ego. Just “thank you” and back to my path.

In summary, here is the list of what I keep in mind as I play:
• Bottom line: How much love can I create from this experience?
• Eyes on the music and hands relaxed, caressing the keys with love.
• Ears listening, as deeply as I am able.
• Expressing my unique passion, feeling, and life in every note, every phrase.
• Using the inevitable, frequent mistakes and disappointments to practice learning from experience and recommitting wholeheartedly to my path.
• Welcoming others to listen, to criticize, and to praise, but I’m playing first and foremost for me.

I believe we can turn any activity into a spiritual path by making minor changes in this practice. Try it for yourself. Life may get a lot simpler and a lot more wonderful.

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