Collaboration - Journal of the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother

Summer 1995, Vol. 21, No. 1

Eighty-eight gurus

by David Hutchinson

The study of piano can be a lifelong sadhana, offering all the benefits of more traditional spiritual paths: inner awareness, transcendence, beauty, skill in means, flexibility, a meeting with eternity in the here-and-now. Every day brings fresh inner perceptions, skills and challenges, integration of the past with the present. This sadhana is also prone to serious aberrations: loss of perspective, slavish imitation of a method, dogmatic adherence to one school, compulsive or debilitating practice.

Piano lends itself to complete absorption. There is so much to learn! Even the mechanics of how to sit, how to hold the arms and hands, how to run the fingers over a simple scale demand attention. And so much more for the mind: how to read the notes, staves, markings, chords, phrases.

People often say that you must learn piano as a child--that an adult simply can't achieve the same level of integration of these physical and mental skills. But this isn't true. Children simply have by nature a capacity for one-pointed absorption and concentration. Look at a toddler building a stack of blocks. You will see lip-biting, eye-straining, breath-stopping concentration. This is what is needed in the study of piano--and in the spiritual life. Complete and utter absorption in the task.

A child works naturally to become a mature adult, with the average physical and mental skills that adulthood requires. The study of piano is of a higher order, an attempt to integrate beauty, skill, and esthetic sense in one activity.

Beauty is not difficult to find; it arises from the strings at a simple touch, and is wondrous beyond imagining. Piano gives you access to a higher aesthetic mind; you can then translate the inspirations from that realm through your playing.

Learning to play the piano is not a passive perception of higher truths, however. It calls for a detailed physical and mental integration. You are maneuvering both hands in complex independent motions and reading two staves of music on the page. This requires the ability to follow many things at once. To achieve this you need to practice a wide concentration, an attention to multiple levels of your being. The study of piano is thus an excellent practice in discerning, splitting, and then reintegrating multiple components of awareness.

As you advance in technique, you learn to detach your self from mechanics. After many weeks or months of work on a piece or a technique, you graduate up to a sense of the piece as a whole. Music is powerfully emotional: it evokes strong feelings with a single note. Because of this, practicing music (as opposed to listening passively) is an education in emotional detachment. You may sit down at the keyboard in a sour mood, but the piece calls for quiet simplicity; or you are contemplative, and the piece requires tempestuous energy. You learn to generate different emotional states at will, and express them through the music.

Whether you wish to learn or not, the practice of piano teaches you the influence of emotions over action and the mind. You soon find that anxiety, depression, torpor, anger--any vital turbulence or confusion--all dissipate your concentration and reduce your ability to play, while happiness, calm, or joy enhance it. If you are open to these lessons, you will learn much that transcends the keyboard.

Because it is so difficult, piano teaches perseverance. You have to work at it for months or years, regularly and with concentration, but progress eventually will come. And that progress can extend over a lifetime. Few areas of life offer such an unbounded horizon. Relationships become flat, occupations become routine, the same mail arrives day after day. But there is no limit to achievement on the piano.

The art of the piano, like that of the spiritual path, entails infinite complexity and difficulty. To achieve any degree of progress requires immense presence of mind. You must develop a detailed insight into the parts of your being. Only when that is obtained can you be a clear channel through which music can flow.

To study piano you should have a teacher with qualities that match your needs. Flexibility in a teacher is critical. A good teacher knows that in any long-term effort, there will be periods of fast advance alternating with stagnation or even regression. He shows sensibility in the slow times, works on the basics, and waits for motivation to strike the student once again. And most importantly, he recognizes when the student is ready for the next advance, and gives the tools to help achieve that leap forward.

As with the spiritual path, faith is necessary. No one sits down and plays perfectly the first or the fiftieth time. You have to believe that you are capable of the beauty you hear from an established pianist. You must also have a working belief in your day-to-day practice. Weeks may go by in which seemingly nothing has changed, no progress has been made. You sit down at the keyboard (or in meditation) and . . . nothing. So even as you concentrate and perfect the small details of technique you need to keep your inner eye trained on the goal. Remember that if Bach can attain such heights, so can you.

Sooner or later, usually on a frustrating day when you least expect it, an internal synthesis occurs. The skills that you have been practicing in isolation fuse into a whole, and suddenly you can play a piece that only a few days before was unthinkable. The music emerges from your fingers as if by magic. You have transcended technique--and yourself. You have brought a piece of eternity, of beauty and truth, down into the world.

The eighty-eight have spoken.

David Hutchinson moderates an online Synthesis of Yoga discussion group called Aurodiscuss. His e-mail address is