A Spiritual Boost for 2023

A Spiritual Boost for 2023

A few words of advice...

- That in answering now for one, I may forever answer for many -

"... whenever I’d be at the computer to concentrate on design work, I began noticing I was holding my breath and my shoulders were up. After a while my hands would begin to stiffen, my neck & back would ache, etc."

Absolutely everything originates in mind. I am reminded of Shakespeare's Henry V, in which the King proclaims, "All things are ready if our minds be so". How true indeed, and that was in preparation for a battle, not the arguably gentler task of sitting in a comfortable chair to be creative or, more on topic, to exercise the fingers and produce some joyous tones without being speared in the back by a French knight on horseback.

Doing some stretches can of course help, as well as sitting in a more beneficial position on a more comfortable chair but these do not unriddle the addressable root causes of tension. One always does well to self-analyse and observe detachedly. Often, fear plays the ghastly role behind 'tension before creation'.

Being afraid is beneficial in that an issue is highlighted to us without the need to look for it for too long. Fear simply says: "That's it, over there!" You are then obliged to thank your fear for its guidance. The result may be results-driven, feedback-driven, or ability-driven, meaning (respectively): Are you afraid your output will not be equal to or, better, greater than your input? Do you not want to hear anything bad about what you've been working on, or better, can you not handle so much success and admiration!? Finally, are you really capable, theoretically and technically, of carrying out the desired task yet?

The opposite of fear is truth. Only You know your truth following some introspection, in order that you might free yourself from the physical side-effect of such unknowns: tension.

I’m curious, in fact passionate about understanding what goes on behind the scenes: The struggle to master eye-hand coordination, hand independence, the battle to quite the mind and allow the music to travel from heart to instrument. The frustration of playing something a million times and it still not becoming “second nature.” The intermittent depression that accompanies the disappointment of not being as proficient as you think you “should” be after putting in your 10,000+ hours…"

The first sign of error upon the questioner's path is the verb 'struggle to'. Even before setting out, the mind is falsely prepared for a difficult journey. This adds extreme psychological weight and renders progress inherently impossible, as can be seen by the long (and unfinished!) list of 'hurdles' to overcome. Can you see why I started this article with the Shakespeare quote?

Let me discuss each item individually:

To the Water Pianist, hand-eye coordination is a misnomer since most of what is executed at the piano is shared between internal piano/jukebox time away from the piano and eyes-closed time at the piano. This leaves very little for the eyes to actually do! It should rather be called 'mind-fingertip' coordination because the Water Pianist does not think in terms of two hands but ten individual fingers, no matter their positions. Finger independence is the goal, therefore, not hand-eye coordination. This mentality comes from someone who hopes to improve solely at the piano... something which is not possible beyond absolute beginner level.

Water Pianism Syllabus

Hand independence problems arise from assuming that the left hand 'does this' and the right hand 'does that' at the same time. This is false from the perspective of the piano itself. Detaching for a moment, imagine being the hammers inside a piano striking the strings as your key has been struck... by which finger? On which hand? It simply does not matter to the hammer or the string; they simply want to produce the sound required of them. Thus, the Water Pianist is able to play with any finger on any hand doing what is required to produce the result of what is intended (via score or improvisation), rather than worrying about how (which finger on which hand) the sound is to be made. In fact, I have demonstrated in person and in some videos this very point by playing a classic jazz song with only the index fingers of each hand. In person, I asked them to turn around while I played. I then asked them about the technique. You can imagine the shock when I demonstrated what I had done... with two fingers!

Quieting the mind and allowing music to travel from the heart to the instrument is all very poetic and endearing but falls flat for two reasons: lack of theory and lack of technique... but no need to feel disheartened; these are very easy to fix!

People often ask me how I know what to play. They also ask me, or are in awe of how I can play so fluently, as if my fingers are one with the keys. Nice compliments - but the answer is like a magician revealing how an amazing trick is done (and I speak as a card magician of almost 20 years when I say this): it's usually very easy, obvious or logical and you were too easy to fool! In the context of piano, this implies: all you had to do was truly know the melody, the chord progression and how the song goes! And if you happen to be improvising, then all you had to know was which chords sound nice together and which note values work well with those chords! In card magic, this would involve knowledge of card handling and card positions after false or authentic shuffling and cutting.

I'm not saying you're born with this knowledge but this is entirely the point: there is playing... and there is practising... and for the most part, they are not the same thing done at the same time. Often, one hopes to run a marathon before buying the trainers, and all other analogies in a similar vein. So, know what is required of you theoretically and technically by the piece, master those at and away from the piano and you'll be good to go! No tension required.

Charles Darwin wrote, and I quote, "Anything performed very often by us, will at last be done without deliberation or hesitation, and can then hardly be distinguished from an instinct". The most important words in this otherwise true sentence are very and often... but there is a huge unspoken condition attached: the action being performed 'very often', which is to become as if instinctual, has to be being carried out correctly from the outset, otherwise this philosophy will work in the wrong direction: you'll become really good at doing something really badly. It's a case of 'the right tools do the wrong job in the wrong hands' and variations thereof. And since we as creative beings have a generally uniform interpretation of what 'good' and 'bad' mean in terms of creativity and performance, we can pretty much all agree on who is doing something adroitly and who should seek some guidance!

Therefore, upon realising that we are not attaining the desired, required results, an interjection must take place. But what kind? The Water Pianist here applies the 'dissection philosophy': identify the overall problem (theoretical, technical, feel, confidence, endurance, coordination, state of mind, etc.) and see how many sub-sections can be created from it. The original questioner mentions playing something a million times and it still not becoming second nature to them so clearly repeating the song isn't helping, meaning there could be a memory issue to dissect (master 4 bars at a time until second nature, or perhaps two bars if four is still too many), or it could be that a mistake always arises in the same place in the song, meaning it's not a memory hiccup but technical, resulting in the whole piece being ruined, even though in fact the whole piece can otherwise be played very well.

Is there a chord not truly known yet? Does the melody suddenly go out of key and throw you off? If so, spend a while with that particular chord type in all keys, playing it in many different ways with both hands and visualising it on your internal piano away from the piano so that when you encounter it in the song, it passes effortlessly. If the melody is 'weird' in some place, practise only from a bar or two in front into the weird part, followed by one or two bars after. This dissected, focused repetition will eventually iron out the problem crease so that the song can now be played fluently.

The 10,000 hours concept is hogwash, along with many other examples I'd just like to irritably mention: High education equals high intellect is hogwash. Wisdom comes with age is hogwash. Faking it to make it is hogwash. I could go on... but my point is that comparing oneself to a provably, demonstrably incorrect myth is so detrimental that I can't find the words to express myself. Thus, the questioner's comment which regrettably includes the words depression, disappointment and not proficient must be rejected immediately so that all the mind's energy can be focused on beneficial progress and only beneficial progress without compare.

"Please describe in detail, what changed in the way you perceived yourself before and after ["crossing over from being 'a person who plays music' to 'a musician'"]? Had you always thought of yourself as a “Musician” even before your ability matched your identity? What was your process?"

A subconscious burden many seekers carry is the compulsion to label; by noun, verb or adjective. Of course this is the foundation of communication but when it comes to matters of the mind and for want of a better word, wisdom, seeing things as they are without the label does indeed bring about changes in our psychology and thus, our state of mind and therefore, the potential for greater progress upon a better path. By way of example, one doesn't get wet at the sound of the word 'water', much in the same way as one is not actually harmed by my saying, "I am hitting you with this hammer". It is much less of a strain on the mind, therefore, to avoid chasing labels which have the effect of solidifying their target which otherwise is not tangible at all. In context of the question, I can categorically say that there was no transitional process from 'a person who plays music' into 'a musician', since neither objects are tangible but mere irrelevant notions which have no inherent value whatsoever and it is for this reason the Water Pianist does not carry such an impeding burden. I simply 'played according to my musical personality' and 'acquired what I needed, when I needed it', referring to both theory and technique.

"What is it inside of you that allows you to sit in with anyone and immediately hear the key & the chord progression and play with abandon?"

Non-stop: Ear training. A lot of listening to (not just hearing) music. Transcribing bits of songs here and there out of curiosity. Developing an emotional connection to chord types (relevant video). Studying chord progressions from lead sheets (useful free resource here) and hearing them when doing 'purposeful listening'. This does not mean I have perfect pitch, for I do not. At all. But if sitting in with a band, I can very easily hear what the bass player and guitarist are playing and then identify the key. In addition, some theory is required: major scale mastery (relevant mastery playlist) (I had to write this eventually, didn't I?) and knowing some common chord progressions (relevant video). These are all things which can be acquired relatively quickly and once known, just need to be maintained rather than relearnt every few months.

To "play with abandon" could imply some level of improvisation or it could mean simply playing along with the chords so I'll focus only on the former since it requires more blurb...

Improvisation can be practised over three layers:

1. Notes of the chord;
2. Adding notes of interest;
3. Chromatically and melodically connecting 1 and 2 together.

1. This is quite straight-forward. Once you know the chord progression, you only have to deal with either three notes (some kind of triad) or four notes (most other chords). Practise alone playing whatever your fingers want to play over a manageable but common chord progression, especially in common keys (C, F, G, Eb, Bb). I have a whole playlist of chord-related videos here;

2. The 9th (or 2nd note) works with basically every chord type so add that to the notes of the chord sometimes. If it's a bluesy type song, add the b5 since that's the blues note. The 6th is also safe with most triads. This gives you an easy to identify 6-7 notes to mess around with. You can do a lot with those and they're all safe so you don't need to worry about going 'outside the box'. Or, if you do, you can because you know where the 'box' is, so if you want to get adventurous, play a note note as discussed in part 1. or 2. but only very rarely or you may be asked to leave the stage.

3. Instead of playing the above notes independently, it's nice if you can connect them at least half the time with notes which exist between them. Since you're highlighting the notes discussed above, the 'passing tones' won't sound wrong; they'll sound nice and make you sound like you know what you're doing! For example, don't just play E and G; arrive to G via F and F# or even come from above via the A and Ab. Adjust the dynamics, play with note repetitions, alternate two notes for a few beats or bars (common in blues), use octaves, slide from one note to the next (called a 'grace note'), etc. It should all sound pretty good! Note that a lot of these embellishments come from listening to a lot of musical greats!

Water Pianism encourages you to Play You. This is a very deep, albeit short, titbit of wisdom. It implies so many things you may not have considered, all of which exist to help you on your personalised, destinationless journey.

First, the word Play. It implies fun. We play the piano for a reason. We don't 'toil away' or 'labour' at the piano. We enjoy it. Everything from slow technical exercises and learning major scales to finding comfortable fingering for chords and enhancing our endurance and precision. These are fun things because they are the unavoidable foundations that enable us to go as far as we dare; things we acquire through effort and then maintain almost effortlessly.

Water Pianism Syllabus

Second, the word You. Now there's a topic! You, in the plural from my perspective, come with unique hands, fingers, musical feels, ambitions and desires, stories and experiences. What is easy for half of you is challenging for the other, and vice-versa. You all like different genres of music and want to play an enormous array of repertoire. None of you are the same but for your desire to self-express and share in the joie-de-vivre that is music, not to mention being fellow Water Pianists!

And to close, I would like to explain what the graphic means at the top of this article, "No questions, no answers". It means let be. It means observe and accept, internally and externally. It means act now on truth. It means everything is as it should be for you to make progress. It means you don't need to get tangled up through overthinking. It means no conscious interference. It means that by adhering to your musical personality and accepting your truth, your Way is cleared.

It does not literally mean don't ask questions, otherwise I wouldn't have taken hours to happily write this article in response! I hope you can detect the difference.

Thank you for reading and happy playing!

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