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13 minutes reading time (2604 words)

My meeting with the man in the ebony and ivory tower

Man in the Ivory Tower

The following account may be fiction. It may be true. It may be both.

I had been a piano teacher and performer for nearly a decade. At the age of twenty-eight, I was plagued by a persistent "hollow" feeling, especially after giving yet another mediocre lesson or anxiety-driven performance.

Performing was always an ordeal, and a perpetual affront to my nervous system. It usually took me months to learn and polish a new piece, and then I was unable to perform without lapses or collapses. When a performance was finally over, I didn't want to touch the pieces anymore, so I would move on to new repertoire, repeating the cycle. I begin to ask, "What's the point? Others are so much better at this!" Though I loved music, I hardly knew why I was still doing it. Bach, Chopin, and Debussy had prepared a delicious smorgasbord, but I was coming to the table with no appetite.

Was I leading my students into the same hollow den? I was teaching them to read notes and play correctly, and I would emit a big sigh of relief when their efforts resulted in sounds that resembled music. But was this really music or merely an appearance of it? Something was missing.

One day, I was sharing my struggles with a colleague, and she told me about an old man who lived in the mountains in a self-proclaimed "ebony and ivory tower." He had helped her through a similar crisis long ago, so she suggested that I seek him out.

A week later, after a brief phone conversation with the man and a long drive along back roads through mossy forests, I was standing in the tiny circular house of a vibrant old man. I told him that he had the reputation of being a sage, and I needed some guidance.

He said, "I'm simply a person who hasn't forgotten what was once common knowledge. I'm like someone who still grows grapes while everyone else buys cartons of wine at the local supermarket."

I told him about my frustrations and how I couldn't shake that hollow feeling.

"Oh, how fortunate you are! That you have that kind of feeling and can ADMIT it rather than suppress it or run from it. That's wonderful!"

"This is a good thing?" I was confused.

"Oh yes! It's a gift! Don't wish it away! It is a guide that has compelled you to embark on a quest to create a much deeper relationship with your piano and your students. In the world you just came from (I don't live in that world, although I still shop there!), such feelings are considered "bad" and are quickly medicated away, or covered up with entertainment, or hidden behind extreme busyness. What a shame!"

He paused, shook his head slightly, and then continued.

"The various problems you described are really just one problem. They are all variations on one deep theme." He looked directly at me and said nothing further.

"And what might that be?" I finally asked.

"You want me to jump right to an answer without the enjoyable process of inquiring and exploring and discovering? Oh! Answers! One of the many bad habits they taught you in schools! They should teach you the beauty and richness of questioning and then questioning some more!"

"Oh, sorry! Let's explore your question then!"

"Thank you for indulging an eccentric old man. So, the first question is: who are you making music for?"

I was taken aback. The answer seemed obvious. "Well, me. And my listeners, my audience."

"It sounds to me like you are not successfully making music for you or anyone."

"That seems true."

"Let's step back to the days before public concerts emerged or even before a person could make money from playing music. Imagine a shepherd on a mountainside, playing a wooden flute in the warmth of the afternoon sun. Who is he playing for? An audience of sheep? Is he worrying about their reviews?""No, I'd say he is playing for himself alone, or perhaps his Creator."

"Yes. Is he worried about playing correctly or virtuosically, or pleasing a teacher or an audience?"


"What then is his motive for making music?"

I thought for a long time. "Well, I suppose it is for the joy."

"Yes! That's it! He is making sounds simply for the joy of having a conversation with his soul —for that profound form of companionship.

"The shepherd gives us a picture of the simple, primal experience of music making that has been completely forgotten in an age obsessed with fame, flashy technique, perfection, accomplishment, theoretical knowledge, and so on. Once the scores of the masters such as Bach and Beethoven were printed and became widely available, making music became about reciting these brilliant musical scripts before a real or imagined audience. Pianists became performers, like actors on a stage, and they forgot how to be speakers and creators. They forgot how to play.

"My advice to you is this: Every day, make music freely at your piano like that shepherd, even if only for a few minutes. Feel the joy of creating! Any art not animated by this joy will die sooner or later. Art is not like paying taxes or brushing teeth! To stay alive, it cannot be motivated by anything other than the joy of creating!"

I nodded, and he continued, "First, begin by apologizing to your piano for treating it like a typewriter or a servant. Address it like a dear friend. Then sit down and have a real conversation. Don't only tell your piano what to do according to a script. Begin a conversation that will last a lifetime! Listen to your piano's suggestions and play along with them."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Where do musical ideas come from? They begin life as suggestions. You play a few keys, and the tones make suggestions about where they want to take you next."

"They do?"

"You don't hear those suggestions simply because you have never stopped and listened for them—you have always been in a rush to decode the printed notes and get specific, pre-planned results. So, you assume such suggestions aren't there. Let me show you what I mean."

He went to his piano. "Play a few keys for me."

I played a D-flat, an E-flat, and a B natural above middle C. He slowly repeated what I played three times. Then he added a few notes with his left hand, shut his eyes, and began to play. He swayed gently, then he left the world behind. Without once opening his eyes, and with no apparent physical effort, there emerged a long and exquisite piece of music — an act of nature. The music soared, it was tender, it swirled like whirlwinds, pulsed like waves, echoed like sounds in a sun-drenched canyon. Then it floated like clouds and spoke of wounds and healing and joy. I wanted to listen to that music forever.

When it was all over, the old man sat in silence for a full minute. He was beaming like a child. His whole being exuded a radiant glow. Finally he said, "THAT is music! Real, living music! I've been playing for over eighty years, and I've never played anything quite like that before! That was certainly influenced by your presence — by the latent music waiting inside you calling out to me — and I responded to it! Oh, I feel so grateful to have this piano and to be able to make music like that, and to explore those endless worlds of feeling! I have been playing for so many years and have yet to scratch the surface of infinity!"

He sat quietly, then added, "I feel such compassion for you and others who spend years studying 'how to play the piano,' yet you never get to play like that. Instead, you move further and further away from this sort of wonderful, immediate experience of music. Such a profound shame that people come to believe it is not possible for them to make music in such a spontaneous and deeply personal way."

I asked, "But how can I ever learn to do what you did?"

"If I notated everything I just played, and I carefully taught you to play the notes just as I did, would that do it? Would you feel what I did, and experience what I did?"


"Of course not. You would arrive at similar sounds, but not the same feelings, and not the same blissful state of mind that only comes when creating. You would arrive at those sounds through a process of cognition, not intuition. A person simply can't recreate that type sort of experience by recreating the sounds of it. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Lately, I've been playing Chopin and Scarlatti a lot. That is lovely in its own way, but it is a completely different experience from creating music that has never been heard or played before. Why did Beethoven almost always improvise when others asked him to play? Because he would rather create something new than play those dusty notes he wrote last year or even the day before!"

I was simultaneously inspired and devastated. I felt like I had been missing the point all these years. I blurted out, "But I don't have the talent of Beethoven – or of you. And my students certainly don't either!"

"Oh, it's not about talent. Talent is essentially the ability to do what others do with much greater ease. But I am talking about making the music that only you can make in this moment, and that is something quite different.

I am talking about making the music that only you can make in this moment, and that is something quite different from mimicry. Just do this each day: Sit at your piano and close your eyes. Be silent for a while. In that silence, all possible music awaits. Then play just one key. Really listen deeply to the tone until it dies completely away. Do that again and again. Enter into a completely receptive state of mind. Keep doing this with various tones until the tones begin to give you suggestions. They will do so eventually.

"Nearly all the greatest composers in our tradition – from Bach to Bartok! – could sit at a keyboard instrument and create for hours. That was the wellspring of their personal creativity and of our Western classical tradition. Schumann wrote in his diary that he improvised one day for six hours! Young Mozart had to be pulled from the keyboard by his parents or he would improvise all night long. There is such joy in creating. That experience has been lost by many because people are so anxious to accomplish something impressive and please their parents and teachers. They no longer sit with their instruments and treat them like dear friends. People are taught to follow the dictates of notes and not to listen deeply and have stirring, spontaneous conversations.

"Once you begin to play music from a mysterious, intuitive place within you, that music will fill that hollow feeling in you. And you won't have performance anxiety any longer, because you will be playing from a place deep within yourself, and it won't matter whether others listen or not, or whether they like it or not. Strangely, the less you care about pleasing others and the more you focus on connecting with your deep, inner self, the more powerful your music will be.

"Here, sit beside me, and play with me. Just make sounds on black keys while I play with you. But remember, you are not performing for me or for anyone else. You are just listening to tones and their suggestions. Close your eyes and play like a child."

I sat at the piano. He began playing, and I nervously pressed a few black keys. But then, I was swept up in the sounds. We played and played. It was like snorkeling among coral reefs and swimming with exotic tropical fish.

When it was all over, I sat in stunned silence. Finally, I blurted out, "That was amazing! I didn't know I could do that. But…I already know how to play the piano! Don't my students need to know what to do first? Don't they need to know scales and chords?""You can get to know the materials of music by creating with them, by playing with them over time, just like a child learns to speak. This simple truth has also been forgotten. Many, many years ago, I learned of the Lydian and Dorian modes simply by making music in them, not by practicing scales mechanically. I didn't even know that I was playing in these modes until years later when I read a theory book. It was an intuitive experience first, cognitive later."

I couldn't grasp this. "But this way of making music and learning music is so removed from recitals and counting aloud and finger exercises and the expectations of my students' parents. I don't know how this relates to all that I have been doing over the years."

He quickly replied, "Oh, yes. Remember, my view is an extreme one. It is pure and untouched by daily realities and responsibilities. It doesn't take into account the expectations of your students and their parents and your colleagues — and the fact that you are being paid to provide a service. I live apart from that world, but you are right in it. You may not quite be ready for what I shared with you and its many implications. Be gentle with yourself and others. Over time, as you develop your ability to have deep conversations with your piano and discover your own feelings, your playing and teaching will gradually change. Don't try to do everything at once. There's no need to rush! Believe this old man when he says you have lots of time!

"You will meet resistance. Musicians who have not experienced this will say to you, "But I would rather play the profound music of Beethoven or Bach than indulge in narcissistic, childish doodlings." To me, that is the same as saying, "I would rather recite Shakespeare all day than begin the process of speaking my own thoughts." A masterwork should inspire speech, not replace it! But sadly, that's exactly what has happened in our tradition.

"Be compassionate toward yourself. Please don't compare yourself to others or your music to others' music. Certainly, Bach's music is 'better music' than the music I just created for you, but on most days, I prefer to play my new, freshly created music over the superior music of Bach. It's not a question of which music is 'better,' but of which way of connecting to music is better at any moment.

"To restore your love of music and make it last a lifetime, have a spontaneous and personal conversation with your piano each day! Make music! Then you will no longer be only a performer or an actor, but you will also be a speaker and creator, capable of discovering deep parts of yourself through musical conversations and perhaps even writing your own musical scripts someday.

"I've been creating music this way for over eighty years, but I still feel like a child at the keyboard. How can you feel hollow when freshly created music is pouring into you and filling you with joy and gratitude every day? You will never tire of music, because it is always new and surprising, forever being made for the very first time." 

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