The Pianist’s Kindness

Playing and Living • Beyond the Notes

As I write this, I am in India on a yoga retreat. Each day here begins sat on the floor together, listening to a reflective discourse on the ethics outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the classic text that provides the start point from which all yoga theory subsequently developed.

The first, foundational ethic presented by Patanjali was ahimsa, which can be literally translated no harm, and essentially means be kind.

Without kindness, there can be no true yoga. And yet, as our teacher wryly and rather decisively noted:

“There are plenty of people in this world who can touch their toes, but who are still basically arseholes!”

As usual, what is true in one field can equally apply in another, and certainly from my own observations of pianists, both in online forums and the ‘real world’, there are plenty of very fine piano players and teachers who seem to be somewhat lacking in kindness towards others.

So how can we encourage the piano community to be a kinder one? Let’s sit together and reflect on the meaning of ahimsa

The kindness of doing no harm

Kindness can seem a rather wishy-washy word, so perhaps it is worth first stressing what it is not. Kindness is not a matter of telling people the nice things we think they want to hear, without being genuinely true to ourselves, to the situation, or to them. Perhaps like me you have encountered this so-called kindness, and noted the lack of authenticity.

The goal of true kindness is ahimsa, exercising our integrity in ways that avoid causing harm. Weighing this up when faced with more complex, multi-faceted situations can involve a wise appraisal of the path that ultimately causes the least harm, and to the fewest.

We perhaps assume that we cause no harm. And yet, on reflection, we begin to realise that harm can occur on many planes. We notice that we can cause harm through our thoughts, words, and deeds. And we notice that harm can be spread across all our spheres of influence.

Firstly, we can harm ourselves. We can think harm upon ourselves, talk harm upon ourselves, and we can bring harm upon ourselves through our actions. We can fill our heads with negative, destructive thinking, belittling ourselves and fixating on unrealistic goals and expectations. At the same time, we can fail to take care of our physical, emotional and mental needs, ignoring our well-being.

Secondly, we can harm others, however inadvertently; often those closest to us. We can harm our partners, family, friends, students, colleagues, and online acquaintances. We can think unkindly, speak and write unkindly, and act unkindly. Often, we lack any awareness of our destructive impact (although sadly there are some who deliberately try to undermine or belittle others).

And thirdly, we can harm our world. This damage takes many forms, and is again invariably unintentional. It is inevitable and natural that we make our mark wherever we pass by, but we can all strive to leave a lighter footprint. We can try to be kinder to our world and all living in it.

Defining kindness as no harm, we come to better understand how we are all culpable, in need of self-discovery and improvement.

Gradually we learn to observe without judgment, but with care and integrity. We become adept at more honestly reflecting on the consequences that our thoughts, words and actions will have on ourselves, on others, and on the world around us.

This is authentic kindness, and it is powerfully transformative.

Questions for pianists to reflect on

I invite you to reflect on some or all of the following questions. You might find it helpful to grab a pencil and notebook, your personal journal if you have one, and set aside a few minutes to make some notes, taking all the time you need for reflection.

Kind Playing

  • How can I be kinder to myself as a player?
  • Am I kind to myself, and those close to me, when I practise?
  • How about when I have a performance?
  • Am I, and have I been, kind to my teachers?
  • Am I truly kind in my attitude towards other pianists?

Kind Teaching

  • Am I a kind teacher? What does this mean?
  • Are my expectations always as kind as they are high?
  • Am I kind to my pupils’ parents and families?
  • Do I ever compare pupils with each other?
  • Do I ever complain about or criticise pupils to others?
  • Do I encourage a competitive spirit that may harm some?
  • Do I treat some students more kindly than others?
  • Am I kind to colleagues, or divisive and judgmental?

Kind Living

  • Do I have a routine that allows me the space and time to be kind to myself, to others, and to my world?
  • Am I sleeping, exercising and eating healthily?
  • Am I committed to self-improvement, and if so, how?
  • Am I at peace with myself, and with others?
  • Do I tend to judge, rather than seeking to understand?
  • Are those close to me concerned for me in any way, and do I listen properly and respond to their advice and feedback?

Let’s move on to consider a few questions or issues which may arise when we pursue kindness.

Kindness and attachment

Our best efforts at kindness can sometimes prove to be possessive in their intent. In other words, we might sometimes think, speak and act kindly for our own self-interest.

Apparent kindness can sometimes be either calculated or subconsciously motivated to attract a personal benefit. That reward might be a strengthening of our influence, or the forming of an attachment by which the beneficiaries of our kindness are in some way indebted or bound to us.

More subtly, we might simply want to promote an enhanced image of ourselves, improving our reputation and public standing.

Perhaps such kindness indeed causes no harm, but ultimately we will want to move towards kindness without possessiveness, and with no attachments.

Kindness and criticism

Criticism, when given gently and with integrity, offers food for our growth and positive change. It is the embodiment of kindness. But I would recommend we only offer criticism when we actually care about the subject of our comments. Why waste our energy if we don’t really care?

Criticism is also best given with permission. When a student signs up for lessons (or a player sends me a video for feedback) they are giving that, asking for honest feedback. They rightly expect to receive a detailed supportive critique of their playing, along with constructive advice for improving.

It falls to us as teachers to ensure that any critique and advice we give remains rooted in kindness. The skill of giving constructive feedback is one of the many essential qualities that effective teachers will need to develop, but one which is rarely taught in music colleges!

Similarly, when a publisher sends me sheet music for review, they give permission for me to write a critique as I see fit. Some would go further, saying that when anything is put into the public domain, be it music, images or words, permission to give fair criticism is inherently granted.

We must recognise, however, that not everyone has the emotional maturity and strength of character to engage with critical discussion or diversity of opinion. If we sense that we ourselves actually have a limited capacity for being challenged by others, we might want to be kind to ourselves by being more circumspect.

When receiving criticism from others, it is always good to consider it carefully. We have so much to learn from each other, and regardless of whether we feel that the criticism has been given kindly or for the right reasons, we can still try to respond with kindness to ourselves and to our critics. The sapling that is willing to bend in the breeze will survive the storms that fell the dry, inflexible tree.

Kindness and competition

Competition is a natural part of life, an evolutionary imperative, some would say, and we will encounter it within ourselves, in others, and throughout life. But are competition and kindness – no harm – reconcilable?

In the piano world, a competitive spirit is often promoted as the norm, and I would suggest to a point of detrimental imbalance. Is it any wonder if there is a dearth of kindness, when even the youngest beginners are encouraged to compete against each other in local competitions and “festivals”?

For the more serious player, competition only becomes fiercer over time; eventually the player may find themselves “fighting” rivals for a place at an elite institution and ultimately competing for work as professional players and teachers. It certainly requires considerable effort and kindness to accommodate any cooperation or collaboration in this process.

Can we truthfully say that this competitive approach to music causes no harm? Some might be conditioned to thrive in this competitive environment, but real harm can be done to those who are more sensitive. The competitive spirit can even harm the supposed “winners”, infecting their attitudes, psychology and character for life. Remember:

“There are plenty of people in this world who can touch their toes, but who are still basically arseholes!”

We cannot sincerely cultivate kindness towards others without honestly accounting for the impact that competitiveness is having on our attitudes and behaviours.

For further consideration of this topic: Competition and Conflict

A kinder future

How can we encourage the piano community to be a kinder one?

Let’s agree together that we will seek to mindfully foster harmless thoughts, harmless words and harmless actions.

And let’s agree to practice:

• kindness to ourselves
• kindness to each other
• kindness to the world

If we choose today to commit to a pathway of no harm, we may not change the whole world, but we will certainly change our world, becoming the better people that we can surely be.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

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