As a fluent musician, to learn to play fast notes on the piano, you first need mental dexterity and then you need to be able to let go and play with physical and rhythmic freedom. It is the passive, muscle-memory approach that becomes obsessed with the physical difficulty of fast playing. In reality, strong fingers are a bit of a myth: once you can find and maintain the right mental focus whilst letting go and playing with genuine freedom, fast notes are easy to play.
The groove in music is its underlying rhythmic structure and the main source of musical meaning. It functions just like metre and form in poetry. The meaning of the words in poems are enhanced by musical rhythm. So groove is a kind of musical logic, a natural flow and unfolding that makes music meaningful, accessible, intelligible and also beautiful, dramatic and moving.
In this video I play with futuristic transformations to the Pianoteq’s new J. Salodiensis Virginal 1600 after performing a short piece by Frescobaldi using the instrument in its original faithfully reproduced form.
In this little film, I say a few words about my process as an improviser, then perform a melodic and accessible unplanned improvisation in a contemporary classical style.
Bach’s Prelude in C sharp minor has the most pleasing symmetry and poetry, yet it flows with an improvisatory, natural unfolding. Its lyrical phrases ache with pathos and beauty.
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!
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!
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’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.