How does learning piano teach spiritual freedom? Brian Bowers discovers the big lessons in the small ones.
The room went numb as the air became stagnant, thickening with each moment. At the age of 24, I found myself suddenly unable to control the angst and tension radiating from my every gesture. Throughout my life, I have slipped in and out of all forms of the arts. The cycle of ‘aspiring’ singer, composer, pianist and writer are on repeat. I switch many of these hats with no measure of significant social influence, as of yet. But I do these things, because expression is important to me. I find freedom there, when I can’t find it anywhere else. At that time, I found myself with an accomplished Russian concert pianist taking my first private piano lesson in about 5 years. I’d done many things, but that was a first—he intense, and just what I needed.
As the lesson began, the environment around me shifted while I tried to reign in my focus. I no longer heard the gentle crying of the young boy upstairs who reminded me so much of myself. The pitter-patter of his feet as he ran around to the sound of dissonant chords and melodies slowly silenced. I’m sure he was used to hearing them played with such nuance and grace. As I played, the broken and abused syncopated sounds of my learning never confused his childlike sense of rhythm—life is funny that way. As children we are completely connected to all. The attentive mother who was once wandering in the house was now allowing herself a moment of quiet for the time being. As her tender calls and calming voice became as faint as a whisper, I felt strangely at home. Mumbling something in a foreign tongue, it all began to fade into obscurity at the sound of Professor Slava’s sonorous voice plunged me back into reality:
“Each one [finger] is connected to each other, but they must learn to be independent. See, watch this. Do it. Perfect! Everyone has this ability. It’s like each one has its own soul and is free from the others. This is called independence.”
I desperately wanted to close my eyes letting the words swirl around my head, making me drunk with imagination. They were mixed and mashed in a thick accent that had quickly evolved from a source of distraction into a mystical meeting. Perhaps it was just a cosmic coincidence. Whether I would actually learn the music in front of me was a mystery I could handle. But I was learning a life lesson that I would never forget: freedom. How I craved freedom and how I craved music and art more than eating, sometimes. To be lost in music or find myself pouring my heart into words and poems, I was allowed to leave the mundane world behind. He continued to teach me with a sense of urgency, almost frantic that I truly understand at that very moment what he was trying to convey:
“Watch me, see? Look there. Look, I am free, I am free. Watch. Ha! Watch! Each one has to move separately. No fear. No apprehension. No holding, no controlling. Don’t push. Let go—let it go.”
His voice began to trail off and I felt a confirmation that said to me “you need strength to be free. Freedom requires strength. To let go. To not have fear.” I might have become lost in some state of bewilderment had he not picked up his hand to pluck on my forehead. To be more, demonstrative, I suppose.
“Look sir. Sir, LOOK here. See! Feel! Each one. Free. I’m free. Free. Let’s try it again.”
My fingers slowly slipped from one key, to the next. Despite the fumbling, he smiled hugging my shoulder, “it’s okay. Takes time. But much better, you understand, that is important.” I asked him “how do I learn to do that? Your hands just seem so light, and quick. They move. They aren’t pushed, but they move so freely.” He quickly responded with a laugh, “I can’t teach you that—you have to experience. It is [a] feeling, you feel it. When you feel it, you know.” I quietly began to think to myself, allowing the quiet to fill the room:
For this wisdom, no degree to reach,
No title given for a soul to teach
That as a fool, man in his choices makes
An unwise decision to control his stake—
For in his hands he is always told,
It is his destiny that he holds—
These great lies bewitch the soul,
Because he finds true freedom
Simply, by letting go.
–For Truth, excerpt from Shadows Chasing Light, by Brian Bowers
And then I finally came to myself. I remembered where I was. Remembered why I was and why I was ‘there.’ I got that funny feeling you get when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That moment when the blood rushes over you and suddenly you feel the strength of something greater than yourself. It’s almost like veil of what we ‘see’ and what truly ‘is’ could fall at any moment and life would just reveals itself in pure form. I call these sacred moments God nods. Those times where it just feels right, even beyond our reasoning. The tears find their ways to your eyes, breaking your composure, allowing you to feel the depth of your being. They let us know our heart, mind and body are on the same page, in the same place and in complete alignment. God nods. I guess this is the only approval that starts to matter, after a while.