The Way of The Pianist


To You, dear student, in your sincere search for perfection.
Throughout this book, I will be treating you as a great friend and offer these thoughts, discoveries, ideologies and scientific analyses to simply plant seeds in the fertile soil of your creative personality, only with your permission however.

In no respect would I want you to be tied down by any hard and fast rules, or a dogmatic, unfeeling approach, quite to the contrary.
We share a great love for that most challenging of musical instruments, so magnificent in its tonal capacity, so singularly satisfying and fulfilling in its broad outreaching ability to portray, in the hands of a solo performer, such a complete repertoire of musical nuance, style and integrity.

The Pianoforte.

The very name of the instrument and the colours of its keys hint strongly, and immediately of contrast, one of the facets we shall cover as the book unfolds.
All, saving the very young early learners, will hopefully be able to glean at least some helpful tips, and perhaps a glimpse into what I refer to as the Science of Piano Playing.

Firstly, however, before we set off on our journey together, a word or two about expectation.
Simply put, an old and very wise phrase, that applies to all walks of life, and all areas of study, and although it may dismay and repel the faint-hearted, there is a great realism within, and also the power to stir up the courage.

"If Perfection were obtainable, it wouldn't be worth having."

There . . . can we face that together and continue with our sights readjusted?

Excellent, at least we'll avoid the pitfall of too much self satisfaction (of course a gentle glow of pride is always allowed, as long as we share it all with The True Source of Everything) and we can always remind ourselves of the Infinite challenge we have set ourselves, and maybe get a sense of pace to our study.
Balance, not too hard on yourself, and not too soft.
Enjoy both with equality.

Okay, I'm going to demolish the rationality in the above, and open ourselves up to a different point of view, a different and much more inspiring perspective.

Perfection, in the relative sense, ie. from the conventional, value judgement sense, is perhaps never attainable, because, quite simply, our mortal points of view could never conceive of Perfection.
So, perfection is not going to even lie in the arena of perception.
Let's try looking somewhere else, at that which we are EXPERIENCING, when entirely untouched by our judgmental, conceptual view.
What we will find is something in the order of the miraculous.
Incredulous, almost un-believable, were it not unfolding, around us and about us, within us and without us.
Simply to touch any part of this with our awareness, light as a feather, will surely bring us to experience Perfection of this different order.
The ineffable, unspeakable Perfection of Truth.

So let us re-affirm our goal. We wish to travel on the road to Perfection, experiencing as much of that Perfection on the Way as we can.
Always include yourself within that Perfection, my dearest friend, that is the very first step, whatever you do, whatsoever you think, where ever you are.
Truly you are always HERE and NOW and that is where Perfection lies.
We have our share of this, and will know it, when we simply allow what is there already, to happen.
You will therefore detect two currents of thought from now on.
The Perfect, in the absolute sense, and perfect in the relative sense.
The Way points to both of these simultaneously.
The relative is contained within the absolute, and yet the absolute permeates the relative.

The Way

Another useful phrase to remember . . .
"Einmal ist Keinmal"
I remember that from a novel and the translation is "Once is as if it were Never."
Or put another way, some people will practice only until they get it right, but there are others who will practice until they never get it wrong.
I expect there is a bit of both in most of us, but it is good food for our wisdom hungry appetites.

THE WAY

The reason for the title sounding rather mystical, is firstly to stir your interest, from the inside. That warm, gentle, sometimes passionate person, who has felt the contrasts in this wonderful life, happiness, melancholy, up days, down days, lost days and found days.
This book is addressed personally to you, my dear friend.

I know precisely when you are going to read this and I know exactly where you will be when you read this.
You will be HERE and NOW.
The only place and the only time for Everything.
Perhaps, like myself, you have decided that you need a more dimensional language with which to get to know yourself, and with which to express yourself to the world.

Very wisely, you have made an excellent choice in the language of Music, and consistently wise, you have chosen the Piano as the instrument to mirror your growth.
Yes, that is just how it may seem to you.
A steadfast friend, who will give sound to your inner song.
Comforting, sturdy, full of fascination, and what is more - a beautiful adornment to your home. Cherish your life long companion, who obediently responds to your touch, and remains deeply silent when you wish.
Best not then to cover it with all manner of objects, that will resonate and rattle much to your consternation.
Have you ever tried to locate the source of those irritating buzzes? I swear they move about when you start to chase them out!

With such a vast repertoire of music, virtually anything in fact, available to play, we cannot look in that direction if we are trying to define our goals.
The only consistent presence will be YOU, and your Piano.
What we shall be examining therefore is your relationship to your instrument, becoming aware of constant factors in the manner of Attitude and Approach, emotional, mental and physical, trying to loosely codify a set of practice and performance manners that will apply generally or specifically to various musical ideas and examples.
Incorporating aspects of The Science of Piano Playing, we shall call the whole of this The Way of the Pianist.

So, my dear student, I hope that your interest is stirred, and that together we can share the Journey, and learn together, and have fun.
For until we develop eighty- eight or so fingers, and live for a thousand years, that majestic perfection that we so courageously have set as our goal, will always be rather more than an arms reach away.
The journey, however, will always be at our fingertips.

General Principles

First and last rule: There are no rules here, only observations. If I can help you to make them your own observations, and you find something worthwhile or useful, it is yours forever.

Golden rule: Never undervalue your own creativity, in either the sphere of practice or interpretation. Make everything your own. Get right to the inside of yourself and the task you have set. Evaluate and learn, in each unique opportunity, from as many different approaches as you can think of.
Feel it all as a part of yourself.

The Primary Principal in Performance will be to portray your own Landscape.
Specifically this is outside the scope of this book, but generally, by respecting the composer's wishes and trusting his annotation, you will find the direction. Add to this the uniqueness of YOU, in the moment, and you have a powerful recipe for a performance Landscape . . . the impression that the composer and you desire to leave with the listener.

The Primary Principal in Practice is to absorb, as efficiently as possible, by using awareness and the intellect. Absorption takes place during repeated exposure of the awareness to the object to be absorbed. It is absorbed into the whole being of the Pianist, the emotional pianist inside the understanding pianist inside the body pianist.
The process is successful to degrees all the time, even unconsciously, but must be continued until the object of absorption can be performed at will without too much apprehension, and can fulfil all the musical criteria in context.

I feel strongly that the contextual consideration is the most important and therefore it is wise to study the landscape first, away from the piano and then zoom in, as it were, to the object, remembering these first observations regarding rhythmic and dynamic flow.
(We shall look at these two aspects of The Science in a further portion of the book.)

Strive for contrast. Yes - the very name of the instrument hints at this - piano (soft) forte (loud) and the colours of the keys act as a constant reminder.
Although majestic or delicate, rich or sweet, the piano, because of its intrinsic mechanical nature - (there is quite a lot of clever mechanics between the fingers and the sound) - nevertheless cannot do one or two things that perhaps other instruments can.

For example - once a note is played - there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect the volume. You cannot crescendo (grow - get louder) nor can you diminuendo at will - the note will simply deacy, naturally until released.
Nor can you add any sense of vibrato to emotionally heighten the sound - as you can on wind instruments and stringed instruments. The tone produced will be absolutely even.
You do not even have to breathe (apart from staying alive, that is) so the sense of phrasing that wind players, brass players or singers can apply by simply breathing is not necessary to actually play a pianoforte - the phrasing has to be interpreted, at first consciously, rather than instinctively.

To compensate for these missing abilities I feel it is vital to always strive for as much contrast in playing as is possible.
Contrasting dynamics - loud to soft.
Contrasting articulations - staccato to legato.
Contrast or balance between different musical elements - melody - accompaniment.
How much can you heighten these contrasts - how clearly can you mark one extreme from the other - how much of a range can you give to these matters of contrast?
All questions for you to explore and experiment with.

Above all, I would consider the fact that music is about relationships.
Sound in relationship with silence.
Pitches in relationship with each other - rhythms in relationship to a metre.
Timbres - colours - textures in relationship to each other.
Contrasts being another aspect of relationships.
The relationship of composer to performer - the performer to the listener.
And finally - critically - the relationship of the pianist - with him or herself.

Object of Concentration

So, the practice object is what we set out to absorb.
What that object is will be defined by musical phrase, spatial movement, fingering sequence, tonal balance or any of those in combination. It could be anything that requires special attention, for whatever reason.

In depth study will lead us to conclude that everything deserves correct absorption, for no part of a musical whole is less deserving of our attention than another. Quite often the parts we regard as the "simple bits" are found to be lacking in sincerity and authority if they are overlooked by our attention and may even be found missing from the memory when it comes to performance trials!

Notice the omission of the word "difficult" which is purely a relative judgement and has no place in the mind of a Pianist, upon the black and white way.
Seeing practice objects, (all be they self set goals) as purely matters of science, sets a positive attitude in motion.
A practice object is simply the current challenge you have set yourself.
Thoughtful consideration of the context of this object, combined with the scientific methods at your disposal, plus determination and applied concentration will yield the desired result.

It must be born in mind, however, that concentration is a somewhat limited resource which tends to become less effective the larger the area it is applied to.

Concentration is like marmalade.
Imagine a teaspoonful of marmalade spread over a slice of toast the size of a football pitch and then imagine the same amount spread over a piece of postage stamp sized toast.
Now think of the effectiveness of the marmalade in both cases.
The idea, therefore, is not to choose too large an area as your practice object. Be very disciplined and try to resist the temptation to attempt to play a piece in its entirety (badly) simply for the reward of reaching the end.
That time will come.
Enjoy the learning process. Relish seeing yourself becoming the best teacher in the world, be patient, scientific, artistic with yourself.

Start off with small sections for the beam of your concentration to tackle and gradually work those small sections into larger sections taking care to make the joins inaudible. Try to work between firm "posts" in the music to help you integrate the rhythm, always bearing in mind the context - what comes before and afterwards - so that the small section reflects as much as possible the realistic conditions of its eventual performance. Energy flow, rhythmic law, degree of relaxation are all useful observations at this stage.

Avoid, wherever possible, practicing at an irregular tempo, or you will find it makes no sense if you try to apply rhythmic law (covered later on.) It matters not to play slower than the eventual pace so long as the pace is consistent with itself. Pace will come with your mastery of the practice object and it is simply a case of “scaling up” what you have already achieved until a suitable pace becomes manageable.

Questions

Awareness during your practice sessions will bring to light many insightful questions and answers about yourself.

Try to not play incorrectly at all.
A tall request you may think, but your time is valuable and not a commodity to be squandered, so you owe it to yourself to apply the speediest means to attain your goals. Above all during practice respect the power of your mind.
Practice in the realm of the mental rather than physical, for little is possible in terms of your performance at the piano without the mind being in the driving seat, as it were.

Mistakes are caused by an unprepared mind not by untrained fingers.
You are training your mind to play correctly not your fingers or hands.
Yes, they apply the finishing touches, but it is your mind that must visualise and fully grasp the tasks that are demanded of them.
Always allow the time to clearly understand with your mind what you are about to perform. Correct conceptualisation is the key to successfully performing tasks big or small.
Understand first, use the imagination to visualise the task in its correctness before any physical attempt.

Imagine two piles beside you.
One pile consisting of all the attempts that you made that were accomplished successfully. The other pile consists of all the bad attempts. Think about all the permutations of errors that are possible during one small passage of a piano piece. They are countless and could occur at any one repetition. Through correct visualisation you should be able to keep the “bad pile” very low. Remember that these piles are stored in the library of your mind and at any given repetition you can make a withdrawal from either pile. It would surely help considerably if the “bad pile” was always out of stock.

Another question that will arise is “At what point do I know that I’ve learned thoroughly enough?”
Well, I suppose any time spent in studying with the correct degree of awareness and application will produce positive results of some kind, but in terms of performance it is useful to have a yardstick to measure success with.
By performance here I mean any repetition of a practice object where your heart, mind and body are coordinated in the aim of success.

What can we use as a yardstick?
I think we should look at our ability to stand back and evaluate our performance in purely artistic terms, in a state of relaxed awareness, having transcended the technical challenges that we originally faced. When we can time and again give full rein to the emotional and rhythmic energies unleashed in a performance, still remaining in control, still able to evaluate and make choices in terms of landscape and balance, then you start to see the sort of yardstick I mean.

In order to achieve your very best, your full potential must be applied to your playing.

Apprehension

Relaxing into the here and now is the doorway into that world of potential.
You will then be able to avoid the pitfalls of tension and fear.
We all have fears of many kinds, some that may appear to be useful in terms of survival, and some that we carry around with us at a sub-conscious level which actually hold us back, and prevent us from realising and living our full potential.

Your awareness lives in the HERE and NOW, when you are playing and thoroughly enjoying the experience, hearing the sound, feeling the flow of rhythm.
What happens from time to time is that we encounter moments of apprehension that flash through our minds. Whatever the cause, in these moments we become self-conscious, that is, we are jostled from our state of peaceful awareness, and instead are faced with negative propositions and suggestions from our mind.
Our mind tends to talk to us in terms of "Me" or "I" and this creates the illusion of a permanent, solidified personality. Our awareness ceases to flow naturally and we start bouncing around in the pinball machine of our thought process and succumb to the personality we think we are, assailed by doubts and restricted by fear.

We should know therefore that the mind and the dream it creates for us is not the real "I".
For WE are AWARE of this process itself, and there is another part of us experiencing. With pure awareness as our guide we realise that we have in fact UNLIMITED POTENTIAL, as part of the One Reality.
We can then unhinge the fear process by staring it right between the eyes and confronting it.

Let's ask ourselves what it is, about playing the piano, that creates this sense of fear and apprehension.
I know, if you play a "wrong" note the piano will in actual fact explode and send pieces of you flying into outer space! No? Will you fall through a large hole that swallows piano stool and all? No?
I think you will find that what you are afraid of experiencing is your very own creation, and that is your own Self Judgement! You are afraid of not achieving the high standard you have set yourself.
You are fearful of your own negative reaction.
Feeling this in yourself you will transfer this thought process on to any other person who you are aware is listening, and the fear compounds itself.
Judge not lest ye be Judged.
It works the other way round also.
If you judge yourself (and anything you care to tell yourself is UNTRUE by the way, for the Truth about you cannot be spoken, it just IS,) you will presume that others will judge you in the same way.

There is always a reason for error, (which is simply things not going to plan) and the cause is usually the mind being unprepared. Be kind on yourself, see it as purely a matter of science. The science of the universe.
We cannot alter the laws that operate within and around us, but we can observe, and learn how they function. Perhaps apprehension has been caused by not making good friends with every area of the piece we are playing.
We know that there are parts that need further attention.
Fact.
We feel the passage approaching and up goes our level of apprehension. Instead of sailing right through it with as much relaxed awareness as we can achieve, we doom ourselves to stumble and fall.
Perhaps we lose concentration.
Fact.
On no occasion is there any call for us to judge ourselves severely, or even at all, for if we have observed, we have understood.
We are still who we always are and always will be, crystal clear consciousness, an awareness that allows us everything, and that feels but doesn't judge.

Until we reach that wonderful ecstasy of fearlessness consistently, we will not be operating at our full potential, not be offering one hundred per cent of ourselves.
However, the only way to unhinge these moments of apprehension when we do observe them is quite simply to let them go, open the hand and let them slip out of our grasp, with a very fond farewell, for it is part of us that we are seeing, and simply deciding that we need no more. Let go, deeply, firmly, very wilfully, let go.
The river of life will wash it away, let that river flow with unknown strength as it carries our burdens away.

Growth

General principal of growth: Growth must mean that we are alive.
How incredibly, ineffably wonderful that is! We all grow at a pace that is perfect for us. Anything that is force fed or artificially hastened will incorporate weaknesses. So let us accept our natural rhythm, and the beautiful design of our unique biological equipment, namely our shoulders, arms, wrists and fingers. Size and strength are rarely an impediment to our joyful growth.
With correct awareness there are always alternatives to any situation.

Please don't be tempted into trying anything like the young Robert Schumann, who devised some mechanism to "strengthen" his fingers, and ended up breaking one or two!
Heaven forbid that you suffer such a tragedy as Paul Wittgenstein, for whom Ravel composed his awesome Left Hand Piano Concerto.
However, accidents do happen.
I have had three separate "Practice Stopping" injuries to my hands over the years.
Fortunately, only one hand at a time, and all fully recoverable.
Please look after your precious body.

Growth in the study process seems to follow a pattern of peaks and plateaus. The study of the new followed by a period of assimilation. Quite often it might be felt necessary to have a complete break. Go ahead, be positive about it if you feel it. You can rest assured that you will return to practising with freshness and renewed vigour.
The Way is still there.

It is critical for your growth that you supply the right nutrients. A varied diet of pieces of the correct degree of challenge that suit your taste and regular study to help your technique grow. To this end, I would recommend a series of Musical studies, not the dry "Technique in Isolation Ward" type that leave the musical soul parched.
After all, what use is technique if it is not contextualised?
Karl Czerny comes high on my list, he had a wonderful understanding of "relaxed hand fingering", which the studies mysteriously impart to whoever takes the trouble to learn them. I will supply in a separate section some dry isolated technique exercises for you.
A little bread with your meal?