Guest post by Alexandra Westcott
An article in response to Andrew Eales’ excellent article Making Peace with your Inner Musician, which was in turn prompted by this quote from the Bhagavad Bita: “Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice…But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace”
I’ve already written about mechanical practice versus knowledge and clarity. But I find I am developing my thoughts on this even more with regard to some of my students. In his article Andrew Eales’ discusses having less of an attachment to and more of an appreciation of results and goals; to be kinder and more accepting of ourselves and our piano playing journey; and to find ways to enjoy our playing and what it gives both to ourselves and others. I agree with this wholeheartedly.
I read this quote from the Gita and understood it slightly differently; I interpreted it to mean that in letting go of attachments to goals we let go of those goals altogether; taking away ALL judgement about our playing (even with regards to right or wrong notes) and immersing ourselves in the moment; surely it is this that this leads to immediate peace? I’m not saying that there are not times and situations when results are useful and necessary (whether extrinsic or intrinsically motivated), but that there can be another option for pianists.
As COVID struck I noticed my teaching changed; I was more interested in my students being able to play music than any amount of right notes or technical achievements (hard to do the latter online anyway), so we found ourselves focussing on the sounds, using improvising and ear games. I have already written about how this can help with improvising so I won’t reiterate all those points here, other
than to say if a student can withhold judgement about their playing then they can make music, however little they know or practice; when unable to concentrate on notes on a page, many of my students found solace through the piano and kept playing through both lockdowns.
More recently though, one of my students had an injury and couldn’t play, but got fed up with this and wanted to just get her fingers on the keys, so we have been talking about moving away from any ‘result’ at all, trying instead to focus on being in the moment, and the process of actually playing, whatever that playing is (i.e. whether improvising or learning a piece), and relinquishing all judgement about whether it is good, or right, or even sounds ‘nice’ (there is plenty of published classical music, or jazz improvising, from highly respected musicians and composers, of which I don’t like the sound, so if they can produce such music, why can’t we?!). The student is not learning for either a concert or exam, so why get upset about the notes…? Radical! We can aim at the right notes (assuming we are learning a composed piece), but judge ourselves less, or not at all, for getting them wrong, and enjoy the process in any case.
The Alexander Technique talks about ‘end gaining’; the mistake we make in focusing on the end result rather than how we get there. Understood correctly this is a huge part of how the Alexander Technique can benefit a piano (or any other) student. I think it can go further than aiding our clarity and technical grasp of the music and take us to a place where we are in the moment and finding peace, whether it is in enjoying the physical nature of playing the piano (which is one of the things I myself love about the piano, whereas I didn’t like the particular physical demands of playing the flute, for instance) or getting absorbed in the moods we can evoke. Sometimes we might enjoy the former but not like the latter we produce but does it matter; if it is ephemeral then is has gone in a whisper but we have lived the moment with peace and pleasure.
If you want a left brain reason to do this then be reassured, letting go of all our preconceptions and ‘goals’ completely can produce much more freedom; from judgement, from tightness of technique, or from musical and physical rigidity, and lead one to being more comfortable at the keyboard from whence ‘traditional’
results and goals are more easily attained.
So along with Andrew’s suggestion to be kinder of and more appreciative of where we end up, I also encourage you to be more mindful of, and kinder to yourself, in the moment. Take away an interest in the results completely, and with it any judgement of how you get there or what you are doing. As I’ve said once before and which reflects Andrew’s own words, once we get out of the way, there is only the music, whether is it ours, or Mozart’s.
Alexandra Westcott, BA, FRISM, is a piano teacher and accompanist based in north London.