Empty Vessel Taoism Piano

An Empty Vessel

Pause • Reflect • Sundays on Pianodao

The image of an empty vessel is a common one found in many cultural and spiritual traditions. It is a concept which is marvellously introduced in these words from that great classic Tao Te Ching by the ancient sage Lao Tzu:

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (chapter 11, excerpt)
translation, Edward Brennan and Tao Huang

Here’s a wonderfully pithy rendition of the first part, this time as translated by that great author Ursula K. Le Guin:

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (chapter 11, excerpt)
translation: Ursula K. Le Guin

In her ever-thoughtful commentary, she notes,

If the iconography of the empty vessel can be momentarily viewed as a metaphor for our piano playing, then perhaps the clay, design, craftsmanship and varnish can be taken for tokens of our technique, understanding and creative musicianship. And we might wonder whether it is the music itself which fills the pot.

Perhaps that space within, framed by our piano playing ability, provides the context for our piano journey, the connections we make with others along the way, the musical communication we develop with our audience, the spark which illumines our soul, all distilled within an empty vessel that we have committed ourselves to polishing and perfecting.

In teaching, learning, practice and assessment, we often separate important aspects and areas of development. Nurturing our understanding, skill and creative ability with distinct exercises and focused attention is undoubtedly helpful, enabling us to throw, hone and polish a bigger and better “pot” in which fresh music will condense and find its form.

But let’s remember that the rudimentary facets of our pianism, our technical accomplishment, theoretical understanding, and even our musical personality, are ultimately no more than a means to an end.

However shiny, however magnificent our vessel ultimately becomes, it is only useful to us as the carrier of our potential for personal connection and artistic transcendence.

Get email updates from Pianodao, delivered by WordPress.
You can unsubscribe at any time.

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.