yin yang symbol on brown beach sand

Avoiding Excess, Cultivating Balance

Pause • Reflect • Sundays on Pianodao

In this week’s Fermata post, I want to address our need for a balanced approach to our piano practice and playing. But first, let’s take a step back and consider some more universal principles.

It seems to be our Western way of thinking to categorise and put everything in separate boxes. We are not always so adept at making connections. We explain our world using artificial constructs that polarise, and that fixate on opposites. We speak of good and evil, black and white, hard and soft, male and female, hot and cold, fortissimo and pianissimo, night and day.

We may think that these opposites are mutually exclusive, but our experience of the world around us teaches a different lesson.

Just as positive and negative ions charge the air we breathe, so too energy, movement and a living narrative are all impossible without the interaction of opposing forces.

Daoist philosophers use the terms yin and yang to discuss these energetic characteristics and their correspondences. The symbol below reminds us that polar opposites don’t in fact conflict, but rather collaborate in an endless cycle of change, the seed of the one inevitably germinating within the other.

They cautioned us not to become obsessed with extremes, but rather to find equilibrium and pursue a more natural way of living, attuned to the cycles and processes at work within and around us rather than constantly kicking against them. Such a shifting of our priorities helps us to avoid excess and cultivate balance.

Philip J. Ivanhoe’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (2) emphasises how obsession can be counterproductive:

How profoundly true! We must all learn not to over-reach. Obsession and excess are neither very attractive, nor fundamentally good.

You may recall hearing a performance in which a dazzling technical display barely masked an intellectual paucity or creative hole. Perhaps at the other end of the spectrum, one where an obsession with the beauty of each individual phrase became saccharine, or papered over a lack of technical control.

The mastery of the piano, whether at elementary or the most advanced level, requires balance. We must avoid imbalances in order to develop as well-rounded musicians and cultivate a more authentic and enduring artistry.

Many players surely need to pursue a more balanced approach to practice, too. It is neither helpful to squeeze practice time between a frantic multitude of other commitments, nor to focus on it obsessively to the exclusion of life’s other priorities. And our practice sessions themselves need to incorporate a sensible variety of activity.

The quest for this more organised and healthy approach is a major topic of my book How to Practise Music. If you have yet to purchase a copy and read it, please consider doing so. Find out more here.

Lastly, we need to seek balance in our choice of repertoire, and in our attitude towards the musical tastes, interests and gifts of others. Whatever our style or groove, a balanced attitude is undoubtedly a more respectful one. Elitism and fandom alike can lead to extremes, and foster a lack of perspective that excludes others.

Discarding opposition, competition and separation, let’s all look upward and outward with more curiosity and enthusiasm. Let’s celebrate a broader, more wonderfully varied and finely balanced world of music-making!

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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.