Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul. ~ Wassily Kandinsky
I don’t think I can say, yet, that I play the piano, but I’ve been meeting with one everyday for almost a year, just late at night, or first thing in the morning. I’ve been learning to follow its notes up and down the scales and I’ve been going through the short pieces in several exercise books. It’s not long before the left and right hand are asked to work at different rhythms and to make surprising steps and rests. And it’s not clear where to look. If I look too closely at the notes, everything slows down and I’ve lost the meter. If I watch one hand too intently, the other one wanders off. So I try to look on from afar, dispassionately, just enough to discern the patterns on the sheet and the shapes that my fingers make as they nearly strike the correct notes. Using this method, I have managed to get through the first few pieces in my piano books. I’ve played them hundreds of times now, inscribing little minuet memories into my muscles. I try to get out of the way so that they can take over while I listen along. Of course I can hear it when something goes wrong but it’s been interesting to find that the wrong note feels wrong to the finger as well.
When my fingers have woven together a passing musical likeness, I move on to the next piece. Immediately the baroque threads get tangled up. Notes ring out in strange clusters and at such a glacial pace that it reminds me a bit of nails on a chalkboard. Over and over, I retrace my steps, trying to find the path out of this woeful, accidental modernism. At the rate I am going there is little hope that I will ever become a very good pianist but this doesn’t bother me. It’s fun to be a beginner, every day, unsure of when and how the music will come.
Something I didn’t expect from the relationship I have with my piano is that outer music is leading to inner music in me. Playing the piano is turning into a spiritual practice.
Like any spiritual practice I have the help of a guru, my teacher Sebastian Estrada. And like any spiritual practice piano playing requires discipline. After hours and hours of practice I’ve reached a moment when the motion of my fingers across the keyboard is actually pleasurable, regardless of the sound. And then something else happens: there’s the sense that the music is playing me, rather than me playing the music.
Professional musicians must have this sense all the time, the very best concert performers becoming translucent to the music that they play. Perhaps this explains how they play large chunks of music, involving possibly millions of notes, by memory. It’s not that they memorize it bar by bar. Rather, they know the music so well that the notes could not go in any other place.
Is that a spiritual experience? Perhaps in this sense: musicians give themselves, via the discipline, to a communication that is far greater than themselves. The source of the music lies elsewhere – in the mind of the composer. But nonetheless, without the discipline and skill of the musician, the music could not be realized, could not be incarnated.
Piano playing takes you out of yourself too. Therein lies much of its satisfaction. And there’s one final aspect to it as a spiritual practice that occurred to me. It has to do with love.
Love is like playing a piano. First you must learn how to play by the rules, and then you must forget the rules and play from your heart. The same could be said for finding God.