The conundrum of empathy and authenticity

Connection and candour are the cornerstones of communication and therefore of communicative performance. We must use our powers of empathy and reveal our truth if we want people to feel fully engaged. People need to know that we care about them and what they feel as much as we care about our message.

However along with empathy and authenticity comes a thorny problem: we keenly feel people’s suspicious, judging thoughts as they look at us sharing ourselves honestly and this can cause us crippling anxiety.

Could you fake it?

A narcissist or psychopath does not have this problem. They can simply feign empathy and this is of course easier; whilst a unwavering sense of personal superiority means self doubt is not an issue for them, they can also excite our desire to please, our need to win the approval of the powerful, charismatic person on stage. But their lustre is more dazzling than illuminating. They may have personal power – invincibility even – but they are not really imparting a message of empowerment. Their message is designed to make us follow and serve, not question, experiment and test their ideas for ourselves.

The problem is that culturally, we have grown habituated to this self-regarding behaviour as the only star quality there is. In this climate, many of them become gurus of self-expression, leadership and presentation excellence. And that is a real problem for most of us who find shining so brightly somewhat terrifying as we face the harsh glare of all those critical minds evaluating our performance. Not only do we not know how to make others aspire to our dizzying heights of performing excellence, we would not wish to delude ourselves with any bizarre notions of being better than our audience. We normal empathising human beings want the audience to be on our side, in our world, part of our team and not separated by admiration. We crave a sense of belonging: arrogance feels just alienating and cold to us.

We recognise the real thing

The vulnerability that accompanies making the audience our equals can actually be one of our greatest strengths, as long as we realise that there is an energy which we can tap into that is greater than us. Just consider for a moment if you have any favourite performers – musicians, comedians or dancers – who do not perform impressively as such but who instead reveal something about themselves that makes them connect with the audience, express themselves connectedly, with vulnerability and warmth rather than impress us with their brilliance. Using a disarming spontaneity and an almost unassuming manner they grant us access to their inner world without any fake posturing, manic energy, hype or grandeur. So how do they do that?

Relying on rhythm

The answer is rhythm. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they tap into the deep matrix that underpins rhythmic structure and enter the state of flow that accompanies excellence in practice and performance. Rhythm empowers us to express our authenticity and empathy without any need for bravado or swagger. Developing a clear, conscious awareness of the rhythmic matrix enables us to tap into a magic that will make our stories come to life, ignite our passion and our charisma. And it does all this with a fundamental gentleness and generosity that is far more powerful than the empty showing off that we see so often and that is routinely touted as excellent.

The principles of rhythm are simple, childlike, playful and addictively pleasurable to practice. We can surrender to the rhythmic matrix, let it cradle us, guide us and flow through us. Then our ego will no longer fear the exposure that our empathy and authenticity might otherwise generate. This is because rhythm allows us to resonate fully and shine at full brightness as it clothes us in the natural, unpretentious magnificence that all of nature so effortlessly possesses.

Rachmaninov Prelude Op. 23 No. 6

The weaving lines and the glorious melody make this Prelude by Rachmaninov a remarkably beautiful and emotionally complex piece.

The Path to Mastery

There is a two-sided misconception around the practices of people who achieve excellence or mastery in their field. We tend to think that they either spent thousands of boring hours, trudging through dull details in mindless drills of repetition. Or that they are massively gifted and find it all incredibly easy as if divine inspiration were tirelessly guiding their effortless discovery of dazzling prowess.

Both these notions are a little absurd, dreamt up by the fragile ego’s fear and vanity. The problem is that when people who possess masterful skills talk about their journey, they can appear to describe it in ways that align to some degree with one of these two accounts. Sometimes the same person describes it in either way depending on who they are talking to or the time when they are asked. So which is it? Do they use aspects of both sides? I believe not! It is simply very difficult to talk about the reality of effective practice towards mastery without veering into one of these accepted paradigms. This is because this reality seems paradoxical and language handles paradox with difficulty.

The dark side

They are plausible accounts sometimes… If a student’s deep, inner force of talent is strong enough to generate instant impressive skills, a very arrogant ego may claim ownership and cross to the dark side. But such narcissistic individuals inevitably fall short of their potential and as such are not on the path to mastery.

Another equally narcissistic individual may attribute their skills purely to their ability to keep their nose to the grindstone and deny any deeper intuitive talent. But again, this inevitably lures them from the path. The true middle way of ideal practice makes use of neither boring trudge nor blind, effortless talent. To see how this is possible, we must first understand what mastery is…

Mastery is a journey not a destination

I was a child prodigy on the piano and I have honed my pianistic craft tirelessly my whole life. I admit that I have some serious skills that are very uncommon but I still feel like a beginner. I can’t call myself a master, it sounds overblown and grandiose; I’m actually an eternal student.

So mastery is a path not a destination. Of course, you can have dreams and goals that fuel your inspiration to practice with dedication but the journey itself is the key. We practise for the joy of practice and not for the results it brings.

Curiosity, Wonder and Awe

The background state of a student of mastery is awe and wonder. Such a powerful, profound curiosity that sustains itself is never bored nor does it shirk structure and discipline. Endless fascination naturally motivates detailed, iterative practice which develops skill in a fractal-like, evolutionary way. Always inspired to sift, refine and discover more means that you practice in a seemingly paradoxical state of disciplined focus whilst being plugged into something utterly free and magical.

This state is not made from two things mixed together. It is not an exotic cocktail or an unstable, explosive compound. It is a state where to be so absorbed by repetitious detail and structure IS the magic. And it is always a joy! No matter how boring and repetitious it may appear to an outsider looking in, this kind of practice is addictively pleasurable!

Dedicated and inspired, humble and disciplined, the student of mastery practices for love. And so do the best teachers, who aim to provide their  students with the tools they need in their practice. I prefer the word ‘toys’: tools are for work but toys are for play. The best practice is done like a child fully absorbed in creative play, perhaps in a sandpit or building castles with their blocks. A master teacher wishes for the student to gain autonomy and doesn’t criticise their interpretative choices but encourages them to say or create whatever they want to with greater clarity and precision by helping them become increasingly adept at handling the tools. A master teacher therefore empowers students and demands not obedience but enquiry, not correct execution but playful experimentation and not results but deep focus or a state of flow.

Is it necessary to teach humility? Perhaps we must in those rare cases where the intuitive skills are very strong and there are clear indications of arrogance. But most students only require gently checking to stop them from trying to impress. Arrogance doesn’t work for most normal human beings, anyway: the moment we start to be impressed by ourselves is the moment we crash and burn; so it is self-limiting and requires no dressing down of the student.

Discipline not criticism

Master teachers are nevertheless extremely rigorous. Discipline and structure have nothing to do with criticising, demoralising, breaking or shaming a student. Such sadly common approaches are counter-productive as they destroy confidence. Confidence in its true sense is actually faith. Developing real faith requires that the student tests, questions and tries to apply the tools and techniques provided by the teacher. Only through testing can faith arise. The student must have confidence in the teacher, in what is being taught and, most importantly of all, in themselves. Building this unshakeable trust is of the essence!

The moment when the path to mastery opens up for the student is a magical one. The student recognises their unlimited potential, is overjoyed by the deep simplicity, beauty and truth of the way and is filled with irrepressible curiosity, awe and wonder. This is the spirit of mastery.

Musical Meanings

Have we heard it all before?

In our culture, music has become something which we either perform or consume. The focus of music education is upon correct execution. In classical music, it’s all about the interpretation of “great” repertoire. In jazz, it’s all about understanding complex theories concerning scales, keys, chords and rhythms whilst in pop music, it’s all about the making a fashionable commodity – the catchy, the clever, the cool or the quirky. This rather objective way of looking at music makes everything seem a little like karaoke. Of course we all have our favourites and listen to them over and over again – we all have that three-year-old mind inside us that craves the reassurance of the familiar. But sometimes we need new musical stories to experience. I’m always worried when I hear people respond to unfamiliar music by saying rather dismissively, “Oh I don’t know that one!”. Music is not a huge menu of items, some of which we select for ourselves or maybe occasionally try to feed to others, and most of which we ignore. I am sad to say that as people get older, they tend to fall into this pattern. As we get older, it may be advisable to supplement our consciousness with extra portions of curiosity and wonder.

Music can always say something new

Music is in fact a means of expression and communication. It has all the currency and immediacy of language. Music enables us to process life in all its psychological and emotional confusion because it has a deep order which is universally understood. When we see music this way, we realise that listening and making music ourselves can be a very immediate experience, one which directly involves the heart and soul and which connects us. Music can be an act of compassion, love or kindness. When we see beyond the idea of music as fashionable or clever, it becomes simply a medium of human interaction that we need every bit as much as language. Before the industrial revolution set about the demise of folk music, this view was the norm. Music was understood widely in terms of its patterns. Therefore, people could participate fully in musical activities. I think this is why improvisation used to be seen as the key skill of a musician. Now it is rather neglected and discounted except in the rather specialist world of jazz which is usually, I believe, a rather different kind of improvising anyway.

Music can be of course admired for the very opposite of its familiarity or “karaoke” value – its esoteric, inscrutable quality. Some classical and jazz music falls into this category. But whether music is atonal and difficult to fathom or tuneful and accessible, the notion that music can be used as an object ripe for intellectual analysis is, I think, another rather impoverished one. Art and literature suffer less under this kind of scrutiny because they reflect more the external experiences and emotions of life. The inherent subjectivity of music emerges so powerfully whenever we attempt to measure its worth by any objective means: it then becomes a source of petty divisiveness – which seems to me to be the very opposite of its best function. Music unfortunately can bring out the most egotistic side of human nature when treated as intellectual property. Combine this with our tendency to use music as a badge of coolness and we descend into the realms of vacuous vanity.

What makes music good or beautiful?

However, I do think music can be considered “better” when its meanings are more precisely or powerfully conveyed. But to measure this communicative clarity objectively can seem almost impossible and perhaps we just don’t need to anyway. But given that our narcissistic, competitive culture tends to impoverish our experience of music, it does take a certain effort to discard the cultural norms and begin to see that it can be a powerful source of communion, healing and transformation.

The truth is that there is a genuine symmetry and order to how the unfolding patterns of rhythm and tonality work. This logic, when clearly understood by the musician, results in a fluency of communication that makes the music communicate in a highly accessible and potent way. Even if we don’t have the skills to produce musical syntax actively, we all do understand these patterns very well. When we allow ourselves to listen to music in a completely natural way and hear perceptible musical shapes within the underlying tonal and rhythmic structure, we hear music in a purer way. It unfolds more like a story. We don’t look for explicit originality, a clever or cool manner, or even virtuosity; we don’t need to be impressed; we don’t require the music to be familiar or “hooky”; we don’t need to know the name of the musician or the composer; and we definitely don’t need to nod sagely and rub our chin as we analyse and evaluate its merit. We are simply moved instantaneously in the act of listening and simultaneous understanding. And in doing so, we feel ourselves to be understood.

Improvisation 127

An improvisation with a dark, melancholy quality. When music has pathos, I think it provides solace. I think that’s one of the big reasons I go to the piano and improvise… Music helps us process life. It works somewhere on a spectrum from solace to catharsis. It also operates on a pleasure spectrum from soothing to thrilling. This improvisation is a typical example of how I use the piano as a source of solace.