Dispatches from a Week of Piano Practice



Piano lesson today—third week that I have mainly spent on three Bach Two-Part Inventions. I am so slow to play these, much less master any. Lots of scales and other basic exercises, yet still lovely to play and hear, even in half-baked ways, this music that I want to be able to reach better. The difference between getting all the notes right and actually creating music is one essential dynamic of my piano explorations. Finding words to explain this shift or even knowing what action is necessary to find the point of translation often eludes me.

I sense there may be some lessons from my piano practice that I can apply to deepening my sense of ministry, which I also don’t fully understand. There are so many times when I reach for the Inward Guide and all I hear is my own self-will. Then there are moments where I sense the Spirit lifting me and pointing the way. At the piano I notice how I extend certain notes in sequences Bach wrote as evenly paced, how I provide pauses when none are marked but which reflect how I hear it in my head or more often how my fingers stumble over the notes. Fumbling around trying to find the next note can be the first motion in moving toward music, just like those times in worship when words keep bouncing around in my head, seeming to prevent me from listening and discernment. Spiritual practice embodies practiced skills as well as grace. In learning to play the piano, I have to train my fingers to reach the notes. It has been so slow for me to even figure out the recommended fingering. My mind struggles to read the notes, the fingering, the markings for volume or flow, especially when I have to use both hands. One hand can feel very easy and free, then I try to match it with the other and it all falls apart and I stumble and fumble again.


It’s really helpful if I can analyze the music and notice where phrases are repeated, or identify the full octave jumps that appear multiple times. Memorization makes the biggest difference, but is a pain. I haven’t been very active in memorizing these pieces. Studying the piano seems to be so much about playing what someone else wrote in a way similar to what they might have intended. Is not a musical score the record of one person’s path to a place of beauty, a path they invite us to follow as well? Not so different from the writings of Thomas Kelly or Isaac Penington, which offer glimpses of the mystical way.


How do I come to more faithfully listen for the word of God, for the gentle movement of the Spirit? Can practice at the piano help me allow this wisdom to shape my life? As I sit here with this question, the initial answer seems to be no! My mind says that prophetic ministry is more about the process of composing—a creative process of listening to the deepest core of one’s being and feeling something new rise up. Yet so often isn’t the act of prophetic ministry one of repeating a message that has been told again and again but repeating it in one’s own voice for one’s own time and place? So the stumbling fingers are part of it, and the slightly shifted beat is a part of it. Each pianist has their own understanding of what is loud or soft—pianissimo or forte. Certainly as I do workshops, it takes several tries to gain any kind of fluency, as was so clear this spring with the prophetic ministry work. Gaining the basic vocabulary and concepts was all I could work on at Multnomah Meeting or Way of the Spirit. I was reaching for something more at Pendle Hill, but stumbling around badly over my own limitations and the strong feelings which push me around.

In my piano work, practice is needed to bring my left hand to anywhere near the same capability as my right. Brain chemistry says this affects the way the two sides of the brain function. Bringing together the two hands in any kind of competency (much less in a musical way) feels almost beyond my capacity. It takes trying again and again and again if the music is of any advanced complexity as the Bach is.

Then there is attempting to play at the speed the composer intended. Bela Bartók, in his series of pieces for learning piano, notes the number of seconds he thinks it should take to play a piece. When I time myself I’m usually at half speed even when I think I have mastered the piece. Very discouraging and a sign of how much I have to learn, and how much I have to train my body to function within the demands of the music.


Some of my attempts at music sound rote and very distant from the open, freeing feeling I associate with the Holy. At the moment, I feel caught in that practicing stage, that almost mechanical skill-learning dimension. Obviously I will never be a concert pianist. It is clear that they have an amazing freedom within the discipline just as I know that those who do a lot of improvisation also have to have mastered the instrument. They have gained this feel for how an instrument sounds as they make different movements and hit or stroke it in various ways.


Yoga class today. My teacher here has also opened me up to the value of training the body and the breath, that both may be strong and flexible. This is work that helps ease the movement of the energy flow and spirit in the interior spaces and opens up the practitioner to the Holy. The old meetinghouse benches passively provide an impetus to sit up straight in a way similar to the yoga expectation of positioning the body to allow the ch’i to move freely. At concerts I note the straight back of many professional pianists. Quaker discipline has always had a strand of spending extended time in contemplation—learning to clear the mind of all the ordinary musings and focusing it on poetry, biblical passages, or the stories of early Quakers. Or simply listening in the place beyond all words. In this practice I am called to bring the reality of living, expectant worship into every aspect of daily life.


Piano lesson tomorrow—just the thought makes me practice each piece an extra time or two. I’m no good at sustaining even the hope of daily playing without the impetus of knowing I will have to play for her. Funny how many reasons I can come up with to avoid playing even though I love it when I do manage to sit at the piano. One of the gifts of this work is the music which carries with me through the day and fills my head when I waken. Such an improvement over my ongoing mental commentary on the world.


I do need teachers, be they for my attempts at piano or in matters of the soul. Today’s opening from my teacher was to expand my concept of composing and creating beauty. She encourages me to approach studying a composition by finding out what truth the composer is showing me, or what is true for me in the music. That’s not quite so much about getting it right as it is about discovery. This echoes within me and parallels the advice I give when teaching discernment. We each need a community around us, even just one other person, who knows something of the work of the Spirit and can listen beneath the world’s chaos that can engulf us. Such guides, which include our spiritual ancestors, confirm the reality of hope and love at work despite apparent darkness. Their way opens possibilities, broad pathways that can teach us, yet we are each to listen with all our being to find the Life that is within and to learn the particular way that is ours to take.

Margery Abbott

Margery Abbott is a released Friend under the care of Multnomah Meeting in Portland, Ore. She is the author of numerous books and articles and is currently working on a book tentatively titled Walk Humbly, Serve Boldly.

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