The Pianist’s Kindness

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

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 intrinsically 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.

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?

We probably assume that we personally 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:

  • kindness in our thoughts
  • kindness in our words
  • kindness in our 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, we can 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 – and 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.

Questions for personal reflection

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.

Kind Playing

  • 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?

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 unkindly, or do I sometimes criticise them to others, or even online?
  • Do I rank my pupils in any way, set up a competitive spirit that may harm any, or treat some students more kindly than others?

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?
  • Do I regularly judge others, rather than being kind 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!

And now 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 in order 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?
  • The reward might be an enhanced image or public standing. Look at my kindness! But is this true kindness? Does it embody no harm?
  • The reward might 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 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 the use of divination tools such as the I Ching, Feng shui and the 12 Animal Signs have historically played an important role in Daoist cultivation.

Whatever our view of these approaches may be, it is 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, offers food for our growth and positive change.

But I would suggest two conditions for this:

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 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 criticise is inherently granted.

But I think we must 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.

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.

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 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 might 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. Remember:

“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

To recap, how can we encourage the piano community to be a kinder one?

Let’s agree together that we will seek to mindfully foster:

  • kindness in our thoughts
  • kindness in our words
  • kindness in our 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.

Namaste.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

2 thoughts on “The Pianist’s Kindness”

  1. Thank you Andrew, for taking the time out of your retreat to post such a thoughtful, relevant and timely reflection. I so agree with you. Kindness, sensitivity, discernment – and humour! – make for a happy and rewarding encounter at the piano.

    It takes a lot of energy and focus to maintain the same level of presence, attention and curiosity with each student, over a period of four or five hours a day; to shift instantly from engaging a tired and distracted 6-year old to working intensively with a student preparing for an advanced exam. For me, this is the joy and art of being a piano teacher. As each student is unique, with her/his own strengths and preferences and personality, so each relationship with students is different, and indeed, each lesson with the same student, even if he/she comes weekly for ten years or more (you never step into the same river twice!)…

    Your points about the teacher looking after her/himself are so important. A tired, overworked teacher with jangled nerves and the desire to press fingers to ears at another ‘ugly’ loud sound is no good to herself or to her students!

    Let our highest goal be for each lesson to be a container in which exploration, surprise, joy and excellence can thrive and be honoured.

    I wish you a rich unfolding for the rest of your retreat Andrew, and many blessings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am an older piano beginner no musical backgroumd decided I do not want to do any grades just learn as much as possible. I want to enjoy and explore and suprise myself without the stress of grades.

    Like

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