Making Peace with your Inner Musician

Playing and Living • Beyond the Notes

At time of writing, many around the world are celebrating Diwali, the festival of lights which signifies victory over darkness, and a beacon of hope that speaks to the heart of our present condition.

Digging out and dipping into my copy of the Bhagavad Gita, one of India’s most important sacred texts, the following verse jumped off the page:

“Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.”

The Bhagavad Gita (2.48)

This set me wondering: to what extent do ‘results’ cause anxiety in my own life?

The Tyranny of ‘Results’

For pianists, ‘results’ come in many shapes and sizes:

  • the outcome of an exam, diploma or other formal assessment
  • the success of a performance we give
  • the perfect ‘take’ when recording
  • the feedback we receive in a masterclass or festival
  • our placement in a competition
  • the comments we receive from teachers, family and friends
  • the acclaim and praise we gain from others
  • the moment of applause at the culmination of a performance

I think we should be careful not to undermine the value of achievement, or the satisfaction that can come from performing well and giving our musical best. We are right to place value in these and to pursue helpful goals that bring focus to our piano journey.

For the professional musician of course, successful performance outcomes are a non-negotiable essential. And for those who aspire to careers in music, there is no doubting the value of reaching towards the highest of standards at all times.

But regardless whether we are working towards a musical career or simply playing for our own enrichment (fancy that!), there is surely much more to a fruitful musical journey, and of greater permanence than often-elusive rewards.

Can anyone truly succeed in music without developing satisfaction, confidence, and fundamentally being at peace with their inner musician?

Attachment – or addiction?

Later in the Gita we read more on this theme:

“Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice… 
But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace”

The Bhagavad Gita (12.12)

If this verse appears to be dangling “good, better, best” before us, the order of priorities is apparently:

  • Find freedom from attachment to results.
  • Develop musical knowledge.
  • And then (of course) practice!

The very obviously striking thing here, it seems to me, is that many of us have got these priorities quite the wrong way around.

Even with small children we start out by insisting on regular practice and mechanical, method-driven progress, as though these are our top priority. Then, over many subsequent years, we gradually introduce and develop musical knowledge to support this methodical learning. As for finding “freedom of attachment from results”… well, sometimes that never happens at all!

While there has been a positive shift in some quarters towards more a more discursive playful approach to teaching the piano, and a growing emphasis among some teachers for helping players develop a satisfying Active Repertoire, we still have a long way to go.

It is always positive to challenge our own assumptions, and to sincerely, open-heartedly reflect on our educational philosophy. And through this time in history in which so many of our established routines have been shaken to the core, it is more pertinent to do so than ever.

If these words from the Bhagavad Gita have value here, perhaps it’s time to radically rethink our whole approach to piano education. Has our attachment to results turned into an addiction, in which we find ourselves lost as soon as extrinsic motivation is absent or withdrawn?

“Immediate Peace”

The Gita tantalisingly dangles a radical alternative, one which leads to “immediate peace”. For the pianist, what might this look like?

“Freedom from attachments”. It’s a common phrase and theme in many Eastern traditions, including Daoism.

Over the years I have frequently pondered what is meant by the word “attachment” and have come to believe that having an attachment is basically to do with our attitude, and not so much to do with the object of our attachment. We can develop an attitude of attachment to something, somewhere or someone for a variety of reasons, often positive.

But our attitude of attachment fundamentally binds us. I wouldn’t suggest for a single moment that any of us renege on our responsibilities or reject our affections: rather that we wholeheartedly embrace these with a less possessive attitude. The ultimate pursuit of inner peace requires us to be free of all bondage. But this does not mean relinquishing the things, places and people we love; rather that we change our attitude towards them.

I have made it my goal to replace attachment with appreciation. Doing so fundamentally changes our focus away from ourselves and outward. Love, respect, and thankfulness replace fear, competition, and a self-centred posessiveness.

Rewiring our thinking

Let’s now revisit the pianist’s list of rewards that I gave above…

We can make peace with our inner musician by updating our self-talk, replacing the thoughts which speak of our attachment to results with alternatives that are all about appreciation:

  • the outcome of an exam, diploma or other formal assessment
    replace with: the experience of making progress
  • the success of a performance we give
    replace with: the joy of sharing music with others
  • the perfect ‘take’ when recording
    replace with: the fun of recording
  • the feedback we receive in a masterclass or festival
    replace with: the insight we gain from experts
  • our placement in a competition
    replace with: learning together with friends
  • the comments we receive from teachers, family and friends
    replace with: the benefits of helpful advice
  • the acclaim and praise we gain from others
    replace with: the pleasure our playing brings others
  • the moment of applause at the culmination of a performance
    replace with: the satisfaction of playing our best.

You can compare this list with the earlier one. The difference is striking, even though the context for each point matches.

In all cases, of course, the goal is to adjust our attitude to a more positive one, not to lower our standards. We mustn’t stop caring about the quality of our playing; quite the opposite. But our motivation may need to change, and if we are serious about breaking free from our own attachment to results, the primary battleground is going to be in our thoughts.

Nor am i suggesting that we should all walk around smiling inanely like grinning bunnies in the springtime; such masks are generally as unhelpful as they are inauthentic.

By looking for ways to replace attachment with appreciation in our thinking, we move away from a preoccupation with our own ego. We learn to focus on the music itself, on our love for it, and on the blessing it brings to others.

Can making these adjustments to our attitude really bring “immediate peace”? Short of having a decisive epiphany, I suspect that for many of us the transition from attachment to freedom will be a more gradual one.

But why not give it a try?

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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.