I had several lovely piano teachers growing up. The teacher that influenced me the most was Mildred Portney Chase. She wrote a wonderful book called Just Being At The Piano that I reread every couple of years. Mildred studied piano at Julliard and also had a Zen orientation. Her personality was a synthesis of Eastern meditation with Western discipline, giving equal balance to the technical and the spiritual. Mildred’s introduction says,
This book is about being able to experience the instant at the time of its being.
What did she mean by that? Mildred dedicated her life to playing without judgement, without the negative, hopeless voices telling her that she was not good enough, that she was wasting her time at the piano. Sound familiar?
Sometimes I …wondered if this journey was rational…..I discovered ways that would work for awhile and then later fail….But there was a tenacity that never left me, along with a healthy degree of anxiety.
I see this mix of tenacity and anxiety in my beloved students. If this Julliard graduate was grappling with the complexities and frustrations of playing the piano, you can forgive your own perceived obstacles. Zen writings often explore the idea of mindfulness, which Wikipedia defines as “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” Mildred said,
Just being–at the piano–egoless–is to each time seek to reach that place where the only thing that exists is the sound and moving towards the sound.
I would like you to experiment with practicing the piano in this attitude of the egoless self. If you hear voices telling you that you’ve made another mistake, you’ll never get it, you’re no good, etc., silence those voices, and just play. Just focus on the notes, the rhythm, the sound and the feeling of the music.
I am now able to reach a state of being at the piano from which I come away renewed and at peace with myself, having established a harmony of the mind, heart and body….Even if I have only fifteen minutes at the piano…if I can reach this state of harmony…it will nourish the rest of the day.
Don’t you just love Mildred’s ideas? If she were alive today, she would come to one of our piano parties (she came to my first two recitals in the 1980s!) and delight in the beauty of each and every one of my students. She would enjoy our music without judgement. And she would play Bach for us (he was her favorite composer) sweeping us away into her experience of the music.
Today, I hope you will play your piano and get swept away by your own music.
With love and music, Gaili
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