Setting our piano journey in its living context.
Written by Andrew Eales.
As I write this I am in India on a two-week yoga retreat, in which each day has started with a reflective discourse on the ethics outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the classic text from which 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 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 it would seem somewhat lack kindness towards others.
So how can we encourage the piano community to be a kinder one? As always, the answer must begin with ourselves …
So what is kindness?
“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, but without being authentically true to ourselves, to the situation, or to them. Perhaps, like me, you have encountered this rather sanctimonious so-called kindness, and spotted the barely-concealed agenda behind it.
True kindness is actually far more robust, and is fundamentally honest. 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, with just a little reflection, we might begin to realise that harm can occur on many planes.
Firstly, we notice that we can cause harm through our thoughts, words, and deeds. And so we look instead to foster:
- harmless thoughts
- harmless words
- harmless actions
We also notice that harm can be caused in a variety of spheres.
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. And often, we genuinely 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 see that we are all culpable, all in need of self-discovery and improvement. Gradually we learn to observe without judgment, but with integrity and care. 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.
Feel free to print off this article for your personal study use, taking all the time you need for reflection.
- How can I be kinder to myself as a player?
- Am I kind to myself, and to 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?
- 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 unkindly, or criticise them to others or online?
- Do I encourage a competitive spirit that may harm some?
- Do I treat some students more kindly than others?
- 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?
- Do I regularly judge others, rather than being helpful and seeking to understand their personal journey?
- Are others concerned for me, and how will I listen and respond to their kind suggestions and feedback?
Having pondered these questions, you may think of others that are pertinent to you: but try to be kind in all your answers!
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 benefit.
Our kindness is either calculated or subconsciously motivated to attract a personal reward. That reward might be:
- that another person is in some way indebted or bound to us.
Such “kindness” exists to strengthen a bond between relations, friends or colleagues. But is this true kindness? Does it embody no harm?
- an enhanced image or public standing.
Look at my kindness! But is this true kindness? Does it embody no harm?
- or the reward could be internal: a heightened sense of self-worth, value and purpose.
But is even this true kindness? Does it embody no harm?
Perhaps such kindness indeed causes no harm, but ultimately we will want to move towards kindness without possessiveness, and with no attachments.
Kindness and wisdom
The daoists might here point out that true kindness requires a foundation of wisdom.
To understand this point consider the following: how many times have you acted with kindness in a situation, only to subsequently find that rather than helping, you’ve made matters worse?
The contemporary daoist master Deng Ming-Dao writes:
“Only with a wisdom to see into the future and a willingness to calculate the outcome of a particular action is compassion possible. When you can arrange to maximise the benefits for all concerned and minimise and negative ramifications, then you will be acting according to Daoist ethics.”
Deng Ming-Dao, Scholar Warrior (Harper Collins, 1990)
This is one reason that the cultivation of wisdom and foresight plays such an important role in daoist cultivation. It is certainly clear that thoughtfulness should underpin our approach to each other if we are to develop the ethic of kindness.
Kindness and criticism
Can kindness and criticism coexist? Absolutely!
The question is, in what spirit is criticism, warning and correction given? Criticism, given kindly and with integrity, offers food for our growth and positive change. Such criticism is the embodiment of kindness. But I would suggest three conditions in which criticism can positively thrive:
1: Firstly, criticism is best given with permission.
When a student signs up for lessons, they are giving that permission. Indeed, they could rightly expect to receive a detailed supportive critique of their playing, along with constructive advice for improving.
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, permission to give fair criticism is inherently granted.
But I think we must also carefully accept that not everyone is ready to receive criticism, or to grow from it. And when this is the case, or when in doubt, it is perhaps best not to comment at all.
2: Secondly, it’s best to only offer criticism if we actually care about the object of our comments.
Why waste your energy criticising something or someone that you don’t really
care about? Such criticism is likely to be given for the wrong reasons. However fair and truthful our comments are, they may still be tainted.
3: Lastly, when receiving criticism from others, it is always good to consider carefully the comments that are made.
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.
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, it must be noted that a competitive spirit has been particularly encouraged, perhaps to a point of genuine 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 perhaps leading to competition for places in elite institutions, with “the best” teachers, ultimately culminating in competition for work as professional players and/or teachers.
Again, some of this is natural, inevitable, even helpful, but can we truthfully say that it causes no harm? Perhaps not! Some might be conditioned to thrive in this competitive world, but real harm can be unavoidably done to those who are more sensitive. And this competitive spirit can even damage the “winners” out there, infecting their attitudes, psychology and character.
“There are plenty of people in this world who can touch their toes – but who are still basically arseholes!”
Taking a step towards kindness may, then, require taking a step away from competition.
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
- harmless actions
And let’s agree to practice:
- kindness to ourselves
- kindness to each other
- kindness to the world
Let’s choose today to commit to a pathway of no harm.
In doing so, we may not change the world, but we will certainly change our world.
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