The Pianist’s Generosity

Living Beyond the Notes

As I write Christmas approaches, And as ever I have found myself reviewing plenty of festive music publications, as well as considering gift books for piano players.

In keeping with the season, I’m going to consider generosity in this this post, and let me start by sharing this brilliant quote from my good friend Paul Harris, which nicely sets the scene for my thoughts on generosity:

“Performing is an act of giving.
If we perform with artistry and skill – at any level, and with unconditional generosity – then everyone is the better for it.”

The Season of Goodwill

As Autumn turns to Winter, the needs of the less fortunate can appear more obvious, and the impetus toward generosity more important than ever. Here in the UK as elsewhere, the festival of Christmas provides a good focal point for this generosity, but in many other societies and traditions the parallels are very easy to spot.

If Autumn’s thanksgiving turns to Winter’s sharing, communities can have the necessary cohesion to thrive.

However, it seems to me that generosity may have been a little misrepresented of late, so perhaps before we consider how the pianist can be generous, it’s best to begin by highlighting what generosity isn’t. 

Deng Ming-Dao astutely observes:

“Throughout the centuries, religions from all over the world have tried to persuade their followers to be generous. They promise all sorts of rewards if a devout person shows charity. But it is a fact that there is no special deal to be gotten by being generous. We should simply be kind because that is the right thing to do. We won’t get a direct reward in exchange for our kindness, and yet nothing else can so awaken us to the spiritual within.”

Deng Ming-Dao, Everyday Tao

So true generosity is never self-seeking or self-serving.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

When I look back to the presents I gave and received in Christmases past, I am struck by the realisation that I’ve reached that stage of “maturity” where I can reminisce about a world markedly different to the one we now live in, and where today’s wealth, consumerism, technology and gadgets didn’t exist.

As a child, an amazing Christmas present was a toy train set, and I remember that as a teenager I was thrilled to receive a couple of new Thin Lizzy LPs. As a young adult, and especially in early married life, every gift was imbued with special meaning, a glowing statement of an inner emotion. And I can’t imagine how any parent could forget the joy of watching their excited young children unwrap their presents on Christmas Day.

But informed personal generosity seems to be increasingly giving way to a more frivolous exchange of kitsch. George Monbiot memorably discussed the cost of what he calls “pathological consumption” in his impassioned piece The Gift of Death for The Guardian, written in 2012, but as powerful and pertinent now as then.

So we might well ask:
• Has the meaning and value of generosity changed?
• What can we give that has genuine, lasting value?
• Have we lost some of the magic of giving?

Perhaps we have. But maybe that has less to do with the outer artefacts, and more to do with the element of personal connection within our giving, which can authenticate and enhance the bond between the giver and the recipient.

If so, then perhaps our most generous gifts are the favours and jobs we do for one another, the meals we cook, and the music we compose and play.

The Generous Pianist

There are many ways that we can be generous with our music-making, for example:

  • taking part in concerts, piano events and groups;
  • visiting the home of a lonely person and playing to them;
  • playing to our family and friends;
  • having musical fun when we encounter a street piano, or an instrument in a hotel lobby or airport;
  • taking time to listen to other players we know;
  • sharing recordings of our playing and compositions online.

This last suggestion may seem the odd one out, and perhaps impersonal. And isn’t the internet awash with people trying to plug their music? Why add to the noise?

I once read a forum rant written by a little-known composer, who fumed that so many others are sharing their music online. He dismissed their efforts as “pastiche”, and opined that 90% of the music out there is mere “rubbish” which distracts audiences away from more worthy compositions (i.e. his own). He concluded by suggesting lesser musicians should desist from their sharing.

There was certainly no generosity in his lengthy diatribe, but most fundamentally he missed the whole point of why so many amateur and aspiring musicians post their music online. Leaving aside a narcissistic minority, the many surely do so as a simple act of generosity.

  • For some, sharing music online is a meaningful way to connect with, and form a bond with others who share a like interest or taste.
  • For others, it is a way to chart their own progress, and save a personal record of their musical journey.
  • For many again, the internet offers an easy way to share their latest musical exploits with family and friends who live far away.
  • And for parents sharing recordings and videos online is a wonderful way to celebrate their children’s progress and achievements with those close to them.

The internet offers this amazing opportunity for us all to share our music with friends, family and followers, but most of us who do so have neither design nor expectation of achieving fame in the process. Nor is it most musicians’ aim to drown out the work of others.

One of the most fundamental aspects of Music is that it is personal communication, to be shared with others (however informally). Music is communal.

And of course this is a two-way exchange in which the listener, too, can be generous by taking the time to listen – really listen – to the music shared by their network of friends and contacts, responding, giving appreciative and encouraging feedback, and where appropriate sharing and enjoying with others.

Perhaps we may have witnessed a rise of intolerance in recent times, but it is surely not too late for us to hope for better things, and interact online with a more generous spirit.

There are plenty of questions that we might reflect on at this point.

• How do we strike the right balance between sharing the new pieces we are enthusiastic about (and hope our audience will appreciate) and including the established favourites which we know listeners will want to hear?
• How best can we share our compositions and Active Repertoire confidently, but without any hint of narcissism?
• What are our positive approaches to rightly enjoying our moment in the spotlight, while also encouraging others to shine?

• How can we make more effort to engage with the composer and/or performer’s intentions – what are they saying to us through their music?
• Can we make more time for properly engaging with the music of our family, friends and contacts?
• How can we frame our feedback to musicians in a way that respects their feelings, and encourages their progress?

• How can we go the extra mile and be generous to students, while also preserving our own boundaries and maintaining our professionalism?
• Do we dictate our students’ pathway at the piano, or are we generous in allowing and encouraging the development of their creative identity and self-determination?
• Are there some students to whom we are less generous, or for whom we can and should do more? Why? And how can we change the dynamic in those relationships?

Generosity Without Bounds

Beyond the mechanics of playing, listening and teaching, there are deeper emotional, creative and spiritual elements to our potential for generosity.

Here’s another thought-provoking quote to reflect upon:

“If you keep hoping to be comforted by others,
you can feel weighed down by that need.
If you have a constant need to be heard,
nobody can meet that need to your complete satisfaction.
Rather than always seeking comfort from others,
offer your comfort, and listen to others.
In the process of helping, you will be healed.”

Haemin Sunim, The things you can see only when you slow down

As musicians we are uniquely placed to exercise generosity, because not only can we follow Sunim’s advice in the most literal sense, we can also share our own music while encouraging others to take their place on the piano bench while we listen and support.

And I believe that we can, through the power of our music, impart comfort and healing to those who are broken. Which brings us neatly back to where we started! So I will close by repeating that wonderful quote from Paul Harris:

“Performing is an act of giving.
If we perform with artistry and skill – at any level, and with unconditional generosity – then everyone is the better for it.”

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.