I remember the time just before my first piano lesson. I was nine. My father is cellist, and he was playing sonatas with a wonderful pianist. A young woman, short hair, soft hands, eyes that were full of life. She rode a motorcycle. I found her one of the most fascinating women around. I loved her to be around, but I also felt very shy to address her personally.
I had decided for a long time already that I wanted to play the piano, and it was without a question that she would become my instructor. When the school year would begin, I would start with private lessons. During the summer, I would join the two-weeks chamber music retreat that my father organized for children, in the middle of the mountain area where we were living. I still see her approaching me one late afternoon, after their sonata rehearsals. I don’t remember what she said exactly, but I remember it was about me and her becoming pupil and teacher of one another. And I remember becoming very shy, to the point that I might have given her the impression that I was not really into this.
I was. I had been for years already. And it was just the beginning.
Since then, playing the piano has become one of my most precious moments in life. Almost everything else has changed in the twenty-six years that separate today from that summer. But playing the piano has remained. And as the years passed by, I started to realize that playing an instrument yield many a lesson for doing our jobs and for being humans.
Before anything else, playing an instrument requires concentration. In that concentration, technique finds precision to the extent that it can almost be forgotten. But as soon as the concentration breaks, technical weaknesses take over to the detriment of the play. Playing an instrument thus means training one’s ability to concentrate, which has served me many a times. It has served me when teaching, when reading, when writing, when brainstorming. The faculty to concentrate is a gift: it is one of the best tools we have to make space where we first see only chaos. In that space, meaning can emerge.
Playing an instrument also goes hand in hand with an intense training in listening. And that goes deeper than it seems. On the surface, we listen to the notes that we play: the melody they form, the harmony they carry, the rhythm that propels them forward, or that let them linger. To hear all of this properly already requires training and perseverance. And suddenly we start to hear more: we start to hear the details in-between: the silences without which the music would not sound; the interstice between the notes, forming in themselves melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. We start to hear the pulse of the piece, precise and steady as the heart of a living creature. In that listening, we enter the realm of music in all its magnitude, leaving behind the daily chores, our worries, and our ambitions. Listening makes us live the moment in all its dimensions, and that is a skill that has enriched my life and the relationships within it. From family to friends to students and colleagues, I have noticed many a times how much listening helps when things need attention. Listening allows emotions to be there, but to be there at rest. Listening creates a space of consciousness in which we connect to better understand, leaving space for the unexpected.
Above all, playing an instrument comes with a practice of knowing that has nothing to do with words, books, or encyclopedia. The knowing that we do through music has to do with being present. From the very first note of the simplest technique exercise, making music comes with a kind of devotion and intensity that is kind of unique. The body takes over in a matter of concentration that not only makes it possible to play a possibly technically difficult piece, but that also makes it possible to use flows of energy and flows of emotions as if these were words, sentences, and stories.
Just as language, music is all about communication. When I play a piece, I always see a story unfolding. It can be a simple bedtime story, but most often, it is a whole journey. I traverse magic forests where I meet trolls and giants. I hear thunderstorms and raindrops merging with the glittering of the sun. I hear people dancing of joy, sadness, or anger. I sense fear, regret, and hope, their relation and their separation.
Rhythms and Breath
Most of all, I sense the depth of respiration in which multiple layers of life connect with one another. It starts with the very physical sensation of my own breathing, the air moving through my lungs and filling up my belly; it grounds me in its quiet rhythm of in and out; and it provides me with the necessary stability to perform the technical rhythms of my play. Somehow, becoming attuned to the physical rhythm of breathing also opens the door to sensing the rhythm of life: from the banal flow of people and things in my direct surrounding, to a much bigger and diffuser reality. Sometimes, it even seems as if I can begin to sense the loop of time at a scale that is much bigger than a human life, and maybe even bigger than humanity. Sometimes, the scale is no longer about human breath, but about the breath of magma, of stones, of mountains, of rivers, of oceans. In music, the scales of million and of the infinitesimal cohabit.
Practice of Sensing
And yet, playing music is one of the most sober experience I know. Without practice, no music. And practice has nothing to do with the grand sonata that we eventually want to play. Practice is about repeating a series of notes over and over again, in order to find the physical sensation that will allow to eventually play the notes with musicality. For an amateur like myself, we are not talking here about ten times. Not about fifty times. It’s about hundreds of times, sometimes even thousands. It’s incredible what it takes to find the right balance between tonicity and relaxation. Without tonicity, the music cannot take off. Notes won’t be precise, and the rhythm will disaggregate and wither away. Without relaxation, notes will sound hard and dry, and it won’t take long before muscles stiffen and slap your body with cramps.
In that practice of repetition lies a life lesson that I find both humbling and sobering. Humbling because music is infinitely bigger than what I will ever be able to express in words. Sobering, because with patience, practice and repetition, we can train our body to make music. One note after the other. If we find the discipline to repeat those notes, we can reach the beating heart of the grand sonata, and with it, feel, just for a moment, the whole cycle of life.
This article was first published on my personal blog : https://mobilisingaffects.org