Piano lesosn today – third week that I have mainly spent on three Bach “Twp-Part Inventions” which I am so slow to be able to play at all, pharmacy much less master. Lots of scales and other basic exercises, nurse yet lovely to play/hear even in half-baked ways and full of music which I want to be able to reach better. The question of the difference between exercises and music is one of those dynamics of piano lessons which engage me, which I don’t understand and often don’t know how to get at.
Perhaps some lessons to bring into Prophetic ministry which I don’t fully understand in my gut and don’t know how to get at. I notice how I extend notes in sequences Bach wrote as evenly paced, that I provide pauses when none are marked but which echo how I hear it in my head or more often how my finger stumble over the notes. Trying to find the next note and fumbling around is not a good way to move towards music. Yet this seems so different from listening/discernment. Such an obvious component of practice and discipline in 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, esp 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 is quite valuable if I can analyze the music and notice where phrases are repeated, or the full octave jumps that appear multiple times in some of these. Memorization makes the biggest difference and I haven’t been very active in memorizing these pieces. Piano as I study it (as opposed to improve) is so much about playing what someone else wrote in a way similar to what they might have intended.
How does any of this apply to listening for the word of God? Or the gentle movement of the Spirit and responding to that? As I sit here with this question, the initial answer seems to be “nothing”! My mind says that the process of composing, the creative process is what ministry is about—listening to the deepest core of one’s being and beyond and feeling something new rising 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. 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 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 piano work, practice is needed to bring my left hand into anywheres near the same capability as my right – and brain chemistry says this affects the way the two sides of the brain function. Bringing together the two hands in any kind of competent, much less musical way is almost beyond my capacity – it certainly takes trying again and again and again if the music is of any complexity as the Bach is. Then there is attempting to play at the speed the composed intended. The Bartok books all have the number of seconds it should take to play a piece marked – when I attempt to 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 this music makes it all sound rote – and very distant from the open, freeing feeling I associate with the Holy. At the moment, I feel caught in that practicing, 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 – have gained this feel for how it sounds as they make different movements and hit or stroke it in different ways.
The yoga discipline certainly understands that it is valuable to have a body that is both strong and flexible to hold the movement of the energy flow and spirit in the interior spaces and to open up the practitioner to the holy. 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 biblical passages or the stories of ministers or simply emptying it. It has not had an explicitly physical dimension, although the old benches passively provide an impetus to sit up straight in a way similar to the yoga expectation which allows the “chi” to move freely. Quakers also had the disciplines of giving up distractions and not overeating or over-drinking, and that sort of thing. Time in prison did all kinds of things to the body that I can’t imagine – enforced fasting, sleeping in impossible circumstances or going for long periods without much sleep. Dealing with much that was ugly and foul and still turning the mind and heart to God and finding joy in the filth and stench and hardship. A very different discipline from piano practice or even yoga practice.