Compassion is the cure

If we changed the core value of our global culture to one of compassion instead of profit and economic gain, we could rewrite the rules of our system to deal with this crisis more effectively. By making this radical shift, at all levels of society, especially the top, we might find that we could tackle so many more of our seemingly insurmountable problems.

During this health crisis, it’s clear how compassion is what we need in our institutions, society, culture and ultimately the entire species. The me-first, competitive nature of our current system generates an appalling kindness deficit. Obviously, there are countless examples of genuinely humane, open-hearted acts of kindness. But on the collective level, that kindness is just not valued enough. Even the word “valued” begs the question of what ROI kindness might confer, in terms of social status, career advancement and income. We hear too much lip service paid to compassion: people all too often utter phrases as if reading from greetings cards, asking after each other, delivering words of care that are just polite rather than compassionate, that only skim the surface of kindness. This veneer of caring is itself part of the “veneer-eal” disease of valuing the superficial happiness of success and material gain above all else. As we are encouraged to parade our retouched lives on social media, and pretend that the artificialness is not obvious, there is no real connection possible. Real connection is built on real compassion, which is altogether more penetrating. Of course it is tougher: it is the courage to look pain, fear and uncertainty straight in the eye! To acknowledge it fully!

If we were less consumed by the need to maximise material gain and garner superficial, short term rewards, and instead, chose to look squarely at the undeniable suffering that exists in the world, I believe things would be different. I know many people hate putting egotistic desire and compassion on either side of the scales. But our egotistic quest for satisfaction, comfort and approval is born of the pain we suffer at not being accepted and loved as we are. There is an unacknowledged pain and fear of its repetition at the root of the selfishness that we all share from time to time. The shame that arises from continually endeavouring to hide these moments of selfishness and clothe them in whatever form of political correctness is currently fashionable, only serves to perpetuate the selfishness. We become consumed by shame of failure, of being wrong, of being weak, of being not a valid cog in the shiny machine of our perfected, beautified modern society.

In this absurdly optimistic world, human suffering – including the suffering at the root of selfishness itself – becomes taboo. We end up living under the rule of a toxic, narcissistic egotism. Its competitive nature sees anything that lies outside its boundaries as a potential threat and seeks to bring it under its hard control or else to expel or destroy it. Such ruthlessness is undeniably fun in the context of playing games, but is it a basis for thriving in life? Well this hostile, exploitative side of human nature does have some clear benefits if we can manage to execute the mental ruse of viewing life as no more than a game of material win or lose. If happiness is to be measured in terms of riches and status – as it often is – then clearly many of us should have plenty! And a few of us have obscene amounts. But status and money don’t make us happy… Human civilisation is consumed by an existential angst that we are not allowed to express. Anxious people who fail to bury their heads in the sand and who can’t repress their horror at the the stupidity and cruelty of the system are labelled as mentally ill and medicated. The colossal cost of our rapacious culture is as much to our inner peace as it is to the outer realm of the ecological system of the planet. Our angst eats away at the sense of spiritual security that we all crave, of knowing that we are loved, cared for and truly seen. It is a vicious cycle that keeps our collective ego going. So ego and compassion are indeed on opposite sides of the scales! But just consider for a moment that there is such a thing as self-compassion: the ability to acknowledge our own suffering and indeed our fear and resultant selfish motives, to honestly see ourselves warts and all and still feel love…

The exploitative nature of our system inevitably generates corruption at all levels. People who self-publish highly spurious or entirely bogus books on Amazon about how to avoid catching this virus in order to make a quick buck are clearly trying to gain from other people’s fear. They are scammers! But how different is this behaviour from the politician who tries to gain political mileage, or the journalist who writes an article that generates division and fear, or the photographer whose images accompany the article; images which are actually disturbing because they are incongruent? Are these people individually responsible for their actions when they are merely functioning within a system geared towards opportunism and superficial effect? I suspect many people with super-elevated careers are often driven by a narcissism which is as extreme and even pathological as it is overlooked by a society built on narcissism: their version of sensational opportunism in the shadow of this pandemic is just as bad as the terrified consumer emptying the supermarket shelves of essential items in a bout of panic-buying. Or perhaps much worse!

Fear is of course inevitable. My point is that compassion trumps fear! Shame and ignorance are no match for true compassion and they wither in its presence. So in many ways, fear is not the enemy but rather the drive of the ego for material gain. The problem is that when the necessary war on terror is placed in the well-practised but foolish hands of the human ego, rather than winning, fear actually escalates either into utter panic or perhaps worse, it’s disguised version, apathy. The ego is very slippery and good at denial. Burying our heads in the sand is an act of utter terror that, most of the time, we don’t even realise we’re doing. Apathy is usually a leaky container for our fear which then seeps out in various forms: patronising platitudes; subtle or open mistrust of each other; or full-on projection in the form of blaming or hating people we regard as being on the wrong side. The ego will try anything really that attempts to push our fear away, to project it outside its own domain. And in the global cult of ego that we sadly inhabit, there are those who sit in very high places reaping the exorbitant material rewards of this fear pandemic. Whilst the rest of us comply to a greater or lesser extent as we scurry around, trying to get our share of the copious scraps. And those who refuse to buy into this malignant cult are cast as failures, weirdos, rogues and scoundrels. But who are the real scoundrels here?

Some rogues are actual criminals, of course but true compassion is also the way of the rogue – a rebellion against our current egoistic system. And now is the time, in the age of free flowing information, for the vast swathes of rebels, who believe in the efficacy of compassion instead of ego, to use our voices. Love is the alternative way of dealing with fear and the suffering it entails. If we use compassion at every level, on ourselves, our loved ones, on our fellow human beings, on all living things, and even on the rogues in high places that exploit us, we will see that the boundaries that exist between individuals, between families, nations or religions, even the boundaries between species are far from impermeable. We are in fact all one: a myriad forms of the same consciousness.

A new virus is a sobering reminder of this ultimate truth. It reminds us that the ego’s manifesto of invincible control and total material comfort is absurd and stupid. This pandemic is also an existential crisis, in my view, as we find ourselves waking up uncomfortably to the hideous hubris of modern man. We suddenly realise that we cannot make our cells completely impermeable to the pathogens that nature creates. Disease, old age and death are a natural part of life. Pain is inevitable. Running from this fact is mindless and destructive.

So we can’t avoid suffering but we can care. We can bring kindness, love, gentleness and a sense of shared experience. In such a compassionate state, we will take action for the benefit of all. When relative gain and loss no longer matter, we cooperate rather than compete. We bailed out the banks in 2008 in an extraordinary economic reboot. So, evidently, we have amazing power – when multilateral consensus is reached – to achieve extraordinary things. If we can agree to keep the banks afloat, surely we can all agree that there are actually more important things than money: things like human life, having health systems that are not overwhelmed, or to look beyond this temporary crisis, we might consider the basic well-being of all living creatures on this planet to matter more than status and money. To deal with the effects of this virus, we could freeze the markets, channel real resources to where they are truly needed and deal with it more responsibly, helping each other through it. Of course this is what happens anyway at a grassroots level, whatever our leaders or institutions do. The human spirit of care, compassion and cooperation is the real reason we flourish at all. If the powers that be can find the humility – or can be forced – to institutionalise this spirit of compassion in full acknowledgement of the ubiquitous fear and suffering that humanity faces, then compassion will spread like a contagion.

And we might just surprise ourselves at our resourcefulness, our imagination, our adaptability – qualities that in a state of cooperation are nothing short of miraculous. The war against fear, and against this virus, is one we can win with compassion. If we see this truth, then perhaps we will see that the precariousness of a tightly controlled, essentially hostile and exploitative system does not look like the best option for human civilisation any longer, but the worst. We will realise that we can change and quickly. Maybe then we will also see that the footprint of our grotesquely huge population on this precious planet, our beautiful home, is far, far too big and destructive; that we need to find ways to curb our exploitative tendencies so that our impact is not that of a plague but of a nurturing force. We could grow in compassion, care and creativity rather than malignant greed, anger and stupidity. Compassion is the necessary foundation if we are to use our boundless ingenuity to tackle not only this but all the countless problems we face, almost all of which are caused by the single problem of selfish, narcissistic ego.

Ego is the virus! Compassion is the radical treatment and the vaccine!

Teaching musical fluency – dogma or discovery?

It can feel quite strange for students of fluent musicianship to be forced to think of nothing but a simple model of how music works: I won’t allow students’ focus to drift towards anything other than intending musical shapes made from rhythm cells and tonal blocks plugged into the rhythmic matrix and keyboard map. At the slightest sign of critical thinking, ruminating or analysing, I pounce! Success is completely dependent on finding a single-minded moment-by-moment focus on the model and I realise that this approach can seem dogmatic. I make jokes about wanting blind obedience and PlayPianoFluently being a cult and when these jokes don’t raise a laugh, it’s a little unnerving for me…

PlayPianoFluently is not a cult!

So it’s very tricky for me as a teacher. Any cognitive distractions away from the model as you play are just that… distractions! So I have no choice but to coach people to stop thinking, to simply focus on the components of a basic model unfolding in real time! I have to test their learning as if they were five years old and five-year-olds would find it no more difficult than adults with all their sophisticated reasoning skills. It requires less deep investigation or nuanced understanding and more simple memorising. And it seems to go against the established current mores of education, mores that make a virtue of students thinking for themselves and finding their own path to understanding, mores which are good and right, I’d say, in most learning contexts. But as playing the keys fluently is a skill to be practised, rather than a path of intellectual discovery, the mind needs only to be focused and still. I would be lying if I didn’t teach it in this way.

Really I’m the very opposite of a dogmatist as a piano teacher. I do encourage students to explore, creatively, passionately and self-indulgently, just not cognitively. I want them to do it on the level of pure feeling rather than thinking, discover themselves more with the intelligence of the body and soul than the head. I want them to surrender and rebel against their fearful inner critic; to express themselves playfully, generating drama, poetry, unfolding story, nuance, tension and resolution.

Be self-indulgent, free and rebellious

How a fluent musician explores the way musical shapes unfold in the rhythmic matrix to create the amazing landscape of musical meaning is completely and utterly up to them as an individual. A teacher should dictate nothing. But the part of the brain that explores, experiences and generates this musical landscape feels less like the mind and more like the body and soul. It’s a visceral, sensual, emotional and ultimately very personal journey of discovery. The cognitive mind needs to be quiet, calm and clearly focused for this freedom to occur.

Most of the time in our busy civilised lives, we are consumed by constant mental striving: an endless cognitive chatter, measuring, checking, judging,  evaluating and arguing about what and who is right and this keeps the body-and-soul part of our wisdom under wraps. Music is a rebellion against this current default way of relating to each other and the world. There are not very many activities that unlock our inner selves in this very free, unfettered way, where critical evaluation becomes redundant – certain sports might come close, especially extreme ones like surfing, martial arts and of course fluent performing arts like dancing and music-making. Making music is one of those rare activities that can totally free the genie and grant us our deepest wish to experience life directly and uncensored.

In the throes of  unfolding musical expression, the mind must be humble and quiet – obedient even – whilst the body and soul become active and take over. However, the mind has a very important job to do in keeping a constant focus: it must stay awake and alert in order to choose or “tag” shapes made from rhythm cells and tonal blocks plugged into the matrix and the keyboard map. Of course, it must do that actively and this is a mental skill which requires practice. It must do this well… only nothing else!

Why people want to play music they know

When you know the language of music fluently, you love to discover new music. Whilst it is natural, up to a point, to want to play music we know and love, there can be rather a delusional element to this, if what you are playing sounds less intelligible than you might think…

Chopin Ballade in G minor op. 23

Chopin’s G minor Ballade is one of those pieces that is played a great deal and often rather mangled by exaggerated rubato and mannered interpretation. I love to reveal the unvarnished truth about music, to reveal its natural patterns and structure. For me, allowing the rhythm and melodic lines to flow with natural flexibility only adds to the extraordinary cathartic beauty of Chopin’s refined yet emotional and virtuoso composition.

You can use any fingers…

Playing by pinning fingers to set keys destroys natural musical fluency – you can use any fingers.

If we can only play music using the same fingers every time, it means that muscle memory has such a critical role in how we play the piano that our musicianship is stunted. On the other hand. If we can play the same passage using different fingering each time, this means that we know how patterns of the music are formed within the structure of the keyboard.

This is fluency – the ability to effortlessly understand how patterns of tonality and rhythm are formed. It is the ability to intend every sound as we make it, to know where it lives in the tonal structure of the keyboard. True improvising – or composing in real time – becomes impossible if we rely on executing muscle-memorised finger patterns. We need to see that we can learn to improvise music as naturally as we speak, then we will play with ease and flow. Playing by pinning fingers to set keys destroys this natural musical fluency.

How to make a great sound on the piano

What makes a good piano sound?

A good piano sound comes from a combination of factors. We must have a decent instrument with a good range of volume and timbre. It must have a reliable action with a wide range of velocity available so that you can control the sound. Acoustic pianos must be new or well maintained, whilst all the major makes of digital pianos, Yamaha, Kawai, Roland and Casio make pianos with excellent actions.

I prefer the sounds generated either by good acoustic pianos or by physical modelling technology not sampling. This is because physical modelling can offer the same kind of detailed expressive control that you get from acoustic pianos. I use Pianoteq for my piano sounds and it is amazingly expressive and responsive and sounds great. It’s so important to remember that expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think… So, for a great sound to come out of any piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing.
Expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think. For a great sound to come out of any #piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing. Click To Tweet

So let’s think about how we control piano sound in more detail.

Velocity controls volume and timbre and different velocities combine to shape melody and balance harmonies. In this way we can create many different colours

Playing notes legato, or staccato, and everything in between in various combinations creates different qualities of sound.

Precise timing of musical events occur within the rhythmic groove really affects how we hear the sound. Listen to these expressive delays and how they make the sound feel thicker and warmer.

So as the music unfolds rhythmically we vary the sound dynamically in these ways. As a general rule, we make a stronger sound by playing LOUDER, LONGER or LATER and we make a weaker sound by playing SOFTER, SHORTER or SOONER. But this simple rule belies the ambiguity, subtlety and seemingly infinite complexity that arise when we play.

You’ll notice, I’m also using the sustain pedal. Because it releases all the dampers, it doesn’t just sustain notes but also adds layers of resonance to the sound as all the strings vibrate sympathetically. Half-pedalling in particular creates many different subtleties of colour.

Reverb and FX
Room acoustics affect the way a piano sounds profoundly. Where a piano is placed within a room with ambient reflections is a very important consideration and will affect the way we play. When recording, using effects like compression and chorus can also affect the sound.

A pianist must combine all these controlling factors intentionally as the music unfolds. It’s a complex process: we must do it naturally and intuitively. So the most important controller is YOU.

We must use the muscles in our hands and arms to coordinate all the movements in an economic and relaxed way. The hand works like a claw, and the fingers must feel like they are walking rhythmically on the keys. The weight of your arms must be supported by the trapezius – never twist your hands to sit on the keys with your elbows dropped or tucked in. This arm position means we can make use of gravity and never push or force, even for the loudest sounds. We must only play the keys from a touching position – touch the key surface before dropping down to the key bed. Never slap down through the keys from above as this is uncontrolled and can cause injury. The finger drops down to the key bed hitting it at the precise moment we intend rhythmically and makes a soft landing with the characteristic upward feeling at the moment of impact that we all feel in our legs when we walk, run or jump.

A good technique feels natural but precise as it must respond perfectly to our musical intention. Stick to these basic principles of technique. Don’t over-analyse or practise technique outside of playing music expressively. Obsessively developing strength or independence of the fingers is usually counterproductive and can be really damaging. Just let your fingers walk over the keys rhythmically and then they can play with natural and effortless expression.

Your creative musical mind
Your moment-by-moment expressive choices or intentions to tell your musical story meaningfully and authentically determine what dynamics, articulation, timing and pedalling you will use to make a truly great sound. These choices are all governed by our musicianship, specifically our ability to understand how rhythmic and tonal patterns make sense. This is an intuitive skill, but we can develop conscious fluency just as we all have using language. To do this, we need to develop a clear grasp rhythmic and tonal vocabulary and structure. Theoretical elements like notes, chords, intervals, keys and note values don’t generate fluency as they require too much cognitive decoding to grasp quickly enough to be fluent. My PlayPianoFluently course teaches the real vocabulary of music that we can effortlessly hear and understand naturally in real time as the music unfolds.

So to get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Of course, people have different tastes and music comes in different styles so it’s great that we have pianos with different sounds. We can argue about the relative merits of different pianos for as long as we like. But as long as a piano is well made and working properly, we can approach playing it by considering what particular things it can do well. What kind of sounds can it make to bring the music to life? How can I use my skills to do this?
To get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Click To Tweet

Pianoteq presets
People often think that I manage to get a good sound on my recordings because I’m clever at tweaking the parameters in Pianoteq to make my own presets. I’m not all that clever or experienced at doing this. I do have a go at it sometimes but the default presets are actually really great as long as you use your technique and imagination to get great sounds out of them.

Dark Clouds in June – spontaneous piano improvisation

This spontaneous improvisation has a wistful feeling with its modal tonality: the sun should be shining in June and on such a gloomy day, a little improvising on the piano can bring a little warmth and comfort… I will feature it on my album of 16 unplanned improvisations, which will be released in a few weeks’ time.

Brahms – 3 Intermezzi op. 117

Three beautiful, introspective piano pieces by Brahms: smouldering with understated passion and pathos yet darkly sweet and deeply comforting. I find this music richly warm and compassionate!

Popular music – how about some more piano…

The piano was traditionally the instrument of songwriting, always perceived as the perfect accompaniment to the voice. But in popular music today, that position belongs to the guitar. I have some theories about how and why this has happened.

Status symbol

By the turn of the 20th century, the piano had become a popular symbol of the middle class elite: there were a hundred different manufacturers residing in New York alone! Classical artists like Rubinstein and Horowitz had the status of film stars. As the heyday of iconic stars and showbiz glamour peaked, the slightly terrifying character of Liberace took to the world’s stage, championing the piano’s glitzy aspirational appeal in a way that would outdo even the most tasteless bling of certain 90s rappers.

Of course, the piano was seamlessly involved in the advent of soul, blues and rock and roll and there are always artists like Stevie Wonder or Elton John who make the piano a star in its own right… But the combination of elitist snobbery and rather base status-seeking materialism in the consumer age has had a negative effect on this glorious instrument’s ongoing role in music; whilst by contrast, the guitar, in both its acoustic and electric incarnations, has naturally been given full prominence. This is because the guitar is the instrument of the people: it is cheap, lightweight, sounds great and has never been the object of shameless elitism or material aspiration.

It’s not a real piano…

Electric pianos that appeared mid-century were certainly cheaper than a Steinway… But they were still quite expensive. And worse, people tended to look down on them as lacking the all-important status of the “real thing”. They were considered fake in a way that electric guitars never were. Of course, loads of amazing music has been made on these wonderful-sounding pianos – especially those manufactured by Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Hohner, but the popular music industry has never really put them front and centre as they did guitars. Keyboard synthesisers, on the other hand, have enjoyed both cult and popular status. This role of the keyboard has evolved effortlessly into the digital age and the keyboard features very prominently in produced music. But on stage, a synth – old analogue or new digital – is a very different animal: it is less alive, less natural or human and it feels much less connected expressively. Synths are also undergoing huge technological evolution: I have acquired a Roli Seaboard which feels extraordinarily organic and musically connected. But the piano remains my first love!

New piano technology

Of course, digital pianos are now very established and popular. But let’s be honest here… They are often thought of as something you buy for your children to practise their scales on! But in their stage format, they have become more and more popular, and even feature prominently, especially in jazz-influenced music! I love this resurgence. New physical modelling technology, that I use, especially the amazing software Pianoteq by Modartt means that I can combine a laptop with a lightweight portable digital piano and a sound system and I have a piano that sounds every bit as wonderful as acoustic and electric pianos. I hope manufacturers will start to develop exciting new designs for stage pianos, as looks are of course a very important part of the aesthetics of a musical instrument. Electric guitars often have beautiful and innovative designs; whereas stage pianos generally just look very techy.

Hoping for a resurgence of the piano in popular music

Obviously, the guitar is also the most user-friendly instrument for developing musical skills. The non-classical approach of learning chords and rhythm patterns fosters a high degree musical fluency in guitarists. This fluency that makes the instrument feel like a part of you, so you play it directly from the body and soul, means that the guitar is ideal both for inspired songwriting and performing. But I think the piano could regain its position as the ultimate songwriter’s instrument! The problem is that fluent skills on the piano keys are sadly rather rare and composers rely more and more on computers to do their musical thinking for them! But in the hands of a truly fluent pianist, as well as being able to generate very complete and complex musical textures, the piano is also capable of evoking an extraordinary level of musical expression and atmosphere. The autonomy and feeling of connection from the body and soul to the music that a pianist can have is every bit as strong as that of a guitarist, but on a bigger scale.

I have developed a teaching model that provides people with real fluent musicianship skills on the keys. I would love to think that when published, my course might help many students of the piano become empowered musically in a similar way that learning guitar does already. Perhaps this, combined with new portable instruments that sound acoustically rich and beautiful, means that in the future, the piano can stand alongside the guitar as the people’s instrument.

Challenge Prejudice

I feel it is important that people are challenged for looking down on stage pianos believing that their expensive acoustic counterparts are inherently better. As practising musicians, we know that this view does not really hold up to scrutiny. Whilst I’m not asking anyone to lose their love for acoustic pianos – they are beautiful machines – it would be great if people checked their true motives for denigrating digital or electric pianos and embraced the wonders of new technology as people had to do in the 18th century when the piano was a new invention.

Music is human not machine

Music is human for me, or maybe more than human, maybe divine. It is love. It comes from the same place as beauty and grace in nature. It is a communion between hearts and souls that is profoundly consoling or cleansing. It releases our darkest nightmares and illuminates our being.

A Glossy Commodity

When music is contrived to be a commodity, it can lose some of its profound essence and become merely sound. The meanings carried in the shapes and patterns, the complex and subtle messages degrade when the ego is in charge. Because of the nature of music, its truth tends to be pretty resilient and its beauty shines through even in the most tightly manufactured production.

But that’s because of our musical nature. Even a ticking clock can seem to have a rhythmic groove as it passes through the filter of our musical understanding.

More than Perfect

Human rhythmic flexibility and tonal nuance, the seeming imperfections of a living breathing musician that are more perfect than any machine can create with algorithms… these deliciously natural sounds require the kind of skills that our twenty-first century minds can tend to ignore. As we obsess over AI, we see nature less as mysterious or divine and more as a simple act of programming. And surely we might just be missing the point!

The skill of a surfer implausibly riding terrifyingly huge waves is a feat that perhaps the most advanced AI might one day reproduce robotically – I wonder… But on some level of our perception, the robotic quality might just be evident. Some aesthetic aspect, some quality of grace or exhilaration might be missing in the almost perfect imitation of the original experience. Certainly, even the most advanced CGI today still fails to look like a human face in expressive motion. Or does it?

Are We Forgetting what Natural Sounds Like?

The Turing test may not be holding water. These days, I see so many people on screens and even in the flesh, whose faces seem more and more to mimic the conformed generalisations that AI must rely on to create its effigies. If we humans are imitating machines, in our looks, our expressions and manners, perhaps even in our very thinking, then failing to tell the difference between artificial and natural intelligence is a perfectly plausible result.

The quantisation of rhythm or pitch, can make music robotic. So much music sounds robotic to me. I’m not talking about the heavy-handed, 80’s style, midi robotic sound, which is altogether more fun and less frightening, but a kind of sonic airbrushing that is far more sinister because it is so subtle and not detectable to the rational judging mind. The unease we feel is only in our souls. If we fail to engage our heart and soul in our listening, it will go completely unnoticed. Perhaps it is the reinstatement of this hidden humanity in live performances that stops them from feeling disappointing after the perfected recorded versions we hear all the time.

The Return to Natural Beauty

Musicians must fight this trend for cosmetic perfection and the soullessness it brings. To do this, we must work on our skills. We must practise our ability to engage in real, fluent musical communication and surf the waves of free, surrendered musical expression that has flesh and blood, heart and soul and natural beauty. I believe the trend against music that is sterile and ego-driven is already happening. Let’s champion it at every opportunity and make it grow!