by Dave Nichiyo Sensei
The other day my seven year old son, Conal, asked me to come and look at something in the dining room. “Watch this,” he said, standing at the piano with a big smile. He proceeded to press five keys, one at a time, all the way down without making a sound.
“That’s great!” I said, but little did Conal appreciate how much he had really impressed me.
I took piano lessons for almost ten years when I was a younger–then went about 25 years without a piano. A few years ago, I started taking lessons again. When I did, I had the goal of really mastering a couple of showstoppers.
The vision in my head:
My wife and I are invited to my boss’ house for cocktails. I notice the piano. I walk over and nonchalantly pluck a couple of keys.
“Oh, do you play?” my boss asks.
“A little.” I say coyly. And then I sit down and rip through Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude”–a flurry of arpeggios and crescendo’s that flies through a hundreds of notes in two minutes and eight seconds. I calmly pick up my martini and rejoin the party as the conversation restarts. Having duly impressed my boss, the Halo effect carries over into the office and I am quickly promoted.
So, with this in mind, I work on the “Revolutionary Etude’. At some point in the lesson my teacher inevitably says, “Hmmph.” And, I never finish the piece. I play the first page quite impressively but find I don’t have the patience to slow down enough to really work through the whole thing.
Soon thereafter, my teacher begins the lesson with, “Anyone fool can play loud and fast. It takes talent to play slowly and softly.” For the next half year we play slowly. Sl-o-o-o-o-o-wly. We talk about Glenn Gould and play a lot of Bach. Bach did not put time signatures on his music and Gould gained international renown for his interpretations of Bach–which he of course played much more slowly than anyone else.
After six months, I could play slowly.
And guess what? It is much more difficult to play slowly than quickly. Mechanically, it might be more difficult to move your fingers quickly but it takes a great deal of emotional and mental discipline to slow down and maintain a tempo throughout a piece.
For the last five months or so, we started every lesson with some exercises designed to build finger strength and independence of hands (i.e. be able to play very softly with one hand and loudly with the other). It involves doing exactly what Conal did-striking the key without creating a sound. Trust me-it is very, very difficult to do. At least I find it very, very difficult—especially on a poorly regulated piano.
Typically, every couple of months, my piano teacher gives me a couple of books to take home. I find a song or two that I really enjoy and play it throughout the week-looking forward to playing it at my next lesson. We go through our exercises and then I play the song. Inevitably, I play four or five measures and he stops me to go back over something-to play it more slowly, carefully or tenderly.
So, after having spent half a year playing songs as slowly and steadily as possible and the last five months playing them as softly as possible, I took a new book home a couple of weeks ago and found a piece I really liked-Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor. Surprisingly, when I played it at my lesson my teacher didn’t stop me even once. “That,” he said, “was beautiful.”
I told him that I thought that I had sped up a little in a couple of parts. He told me that I had but maybe by about two percent.
“Wow,” I thought. I had played it slowly, softly and beautifully. But I had not just played it slowly and softly, I had played with an emotion that I couldn’t have mustered three years or even five months ago. Not only had I played better, I was more fully aware of what I had played, sensing even that slight unintended increase in tempo. And, I had done it almost effortlessly and subconsciously.
My other son has special educational needs and we have had incredible difficulties with the getting the local school district to fully execute his independent education plan. After trying and trying to work collaboratively with the school we’ve finally given up and had to engage a lawyer. I can’t remember anything that has gotten me as angry. When we met with the lawyer he said that he was going to bring an intern to take notes because he gets so agitated at these meetings that he forgets to take them himself. He said that he would be the bad guy so that my wife and I would seem reasonable by comparison. To be honest, at that point, I didn’t care whether the school administration thought I was reasonable-I just wanted to walk into that room and lay into him and every one of his administrators.
But, that would be the easy thing to do–any fool can play loud and fast. This is true with emotions. It is easy to get angry, rehearse the pithy zingers then let fly. It’s much harder to look with compassion at those who are failing my son.
I’ve spent a lot of time meditating and contemplating in the CTA zendo (i.e. the 136 Express bus) on the way to work. It has been hard to let go of my rage and view the people involved in my son’s education without emotion and even harder to view them with compassion. I’ve focused on slowing down my emotions and thinking compassionate thoughts. And as I do this, I am more aware when I do start to get angry and better able to pull back.
But, this is what we must do in our practice. We must work hard at playing slowly and softly. And, we must do it in an unregulated life. Just like few pianists have the benefit of playing on a perfectly regulated piano where each key has the same feel and response as the key next to it, few people have a similarly regulated life. Life is out of tune, keys stick. There are so many variables outside our control that even the best laid plans can go awry. Perhaps this is why it is so important to find time for meditation and retreat.
As we focus on developing our compassion and awareness of our true feelings we are better able to control our anger, greed and delusion. Anger is always an affliction.
It was interesting that Conal had been able to strike the keys without making a noise. Although he had obviously worked at it a little before showing me, it did not take him a lot of effort. He just pressed the keys and never thought about whether the piano was in tune or not.
Dave Nichiyo Sensei is a Lay Minister with Bright Dawn Way of Oneness Sangha. For information about Bright Dawn and the Lay Ministry program please visit our website.