When East Meets West

Pause • Reflect • Sundays on Pianodao

Charles A. Moore

These words come from the foreword to Wing-Tsit Chan’s A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, published in 1963 by Princeton University Press, and still one of the outstanding collections of Chinese philosophical writing in English translation.

In the six decades since Moore wrote these inspiring words, I wonder how far we have come. Here in the 2020’s, have our continents, countries and communities become more tolerant, more open to the ideas and culture of others? It seems to me that, perhaps, we still have quite a distance to cover.

Ever since my very first post to launch the Pianodao site back in 2015, I have continued in my efforts to apply the wisdom of Eastern philosophy to piano playing and education. As a music reviewer, pianist and teacher, I have also increasingly discovered the wonderful benefits of developing a more inclusive, extended core performance and pedagogy repertoire.

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“In the three moons of winter”

Pause • Reflect • Sundays on Pianodao

As Autumn turns to winter, dead leaves wither on our pathways, migrating birds have headed off in search of warmer climes, insects are crawling into holes, and many animals are settling down to hibernate until the spring thaw.

In Chinese medicine and Qigong practice, the human metabolism also slows down in the Winter, and our energy can become dormant. And yet we seem to largely ignore the challenges of the season. Instead, we work and play even more frenetically than usual as we head towards the Christmas season at breakneck speed.

There is a real danger that our over-exertion in the early winter leaves us physically depleted, mentally and emotionally exhausted, and more susceptible to infection, illness and a general sense of feeling “run down”. We need to take stock…

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‘Hanging on a Cliff of Sorrow’

Pause • Reflect • Sundays on Pianodao

The rather stark title of this week’s Fermata post comes from a quote found in a book written by two of the world’s leading education experts:

Pasi Sahlberg & William Doyle: Let the Children Play
(2019, Oxford University Press)

Assuming we respect the research, expertise and authority of Sahlberg and Doyle, as so many leading international organisations and educationalists do, then the strength of their impassioned plea will command our immediate and undivided attention.

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Autumn Leaves

Pause • Reflect • Sundays on Pianodao

John Kirkwood: The Way of the Five Seasons (2016, Singing Dragon)

We sometimes think about Autumn as a season of decay, of decline, in which the weather turns drab, and the nights draw in. And for those of a melancholic disposition, the words Seasonal Affective Disorder loom, an ominous spectre.

But I prefer to see the Autumn as a time of dynamic change and possibility, the old giving way to the new. Any gardener will tell you that plants sometimes need a good pruning, and the spectacular feast of autumn colour serves as a vivid reminder of nature’s inbuilt commitment to change, vitality and new beginnings.

What better time for us as pianists, teachers, and simply as people, to reflect on those changes that may be needed in our own lives?

Which “leaves” are turning yellow?
Here are some of the questions we might ponder…

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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.

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The Supreme Good

Pause • Reflect • Sundays on Pianodao

What are we to say, and how are we to live, in times of trauma, escalating suffering and conflict? On this site I often quietly apply the wisdom of Daoism to our piano playing journey, but what of its broader relevance? Faced with misery on multiple fronts, can Daoism offer any hope?

The great Daoist sage Lao Tzu lived in tumultuous times, too. The details of his life may have been obscured by the mists of time, but the conflicts of that era are well known, and they were brutal. Reading his classic Tao Te Ching, no wonder his deeply-considered response to the world as he found it continues to resonate with so many to this day.

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Where two or more are gathered

Pause • Reflect • Sundays on Pianodao

The acclaimed upper strings improviser, philosopher and writer Stephen Nachmanovitch writes, in his seminal book Free Play (1990):

I would say that, just as this is true when improvising in front of an audience (which I have done many hundreds of times in various contexts over the years) so it equally applies when performing the masterpieces of the classical repertoire, recreating and interpreting them for a live audience, alert to the singularity of the moment and its potential for connection.

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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,

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Fermata • Time to Pause

Pause • Reflect • Sundays on Pianodao

The fermata sign is an indication that we should take a little time to pause before playing on. Pausing is a musical activity.

When we pause we should notice that we have paused.
And our audience should notice that we have paused.
The pause should not be ignored.

An effectively measured pause on a note or rest will often radically alter the quality of the narrative flow, performance choreography and communicative power of a piece of music.

Take a moment now to consider whether you make the most of fermata in your piano playing…

As in music, so in life…

Just as the expressive power of music depends upon the pace of its delivery and the space allowed for silence to speak between the notes, so too our personal wellbeing depends on the timing of our activity, the tempo of our thoughts, and the permission that we give ourselves to pause.

We all need to regularly reboot. Just like the misbehaving computer we have to switch ourselves off and, after a short pause, start back up again. We need to empty out the cluttered cache of our minds and allow the kinks of our ever- developing tension to naturally and gently unwind.

And when we forget to do that, things start to go wrong for us. Many of us have experienced significant burnout in recent years for exactly this reason.

Just for now, take a moment to pause.

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