Bach to Basics
First Steps in a Theology of Piano Playing
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
-- Matthew 6:3
From NPR Tiny Desk Concerts
Separating the Hands
In playing the piano our hands are together but separate. The left hand and the right hand play different notes at the same time in different ways. It takes practice to separate the hands so that they can have lives of their own. They must each grow in self-confidence, accepting their independence from the other, so that they can play together.
And so it is with life. The Spirit of God at work in the world is not simply something that connects us with others, it is something that separates us from others so that we can find ourselves and then, in freedom, make music together. The right hand must have its secrets. We must practice being alone.
Admittedly the two hands belong to one body. In process theology this body is the universe as a whole: the stars and galaxies, the hills and rivers, the molecules and atoms, the people and the porpoises. Whatever music we play affects the whole of it. Thus independence is not isolation; solitude is not self-enclosed. The left hand may not know what the right hand is doing, but the stars know.
Moreover, says process theology, this larger whole -- this body -- is gathered into the unity of a Life in whose heart all lives unfold. This life is God, the Piano Player. We ourselves are the hands of this Player and the Player cannot make music without us. We cannot see the Player with our eyes but we can feel the Player in our hearts. The Player is inside us as well as beyond us. The Player is our own innermost lure to find our true selves and make music with the world.
Faith, then, is not blind belief. It is trust in the availability of fresh possibilities offered by the spirit of the Piano Player at work in the world. This is the way the lure of God is felt in human life. Yes, God is an encircling embrace who comforts us; but God is also a perpetual source of novelty through whose spirit we explore new melodies.
Some might think that the music we are to play has a predetermined and precisely defined score written by the Piano Player, but process theologians disagree. They believe that score in the mind of the Piano Player is under-determined and very general, captured in ideals such as Love and Wisdom and Beauty and Creativity. Our task is to make music and thus make love, which itself is a joy to the Player. The Player responds by offering fresh possibilities for more music. This means that the Player is not fixed or rigid. Always the Player is responding to what we have played by offering ideas for new melodies.
None of this is easy. It is a serious mistake to think that the music can be made spontaneously, without practice. The grace of the Pianist works with and through the agency of the hands. It takes practice to have faith and it takes faith to practice. Ultimately, the practice is life itself, lived moment by moment, sometimes in community and sometimes in solitude, but always drawn toward a music that is more beautiful than any sounds yet heard, yet somehow present in all that is played. Such is the theology of piano playing.
-- Jay McDaniel
The Mind can be Inspired
A writer may find that sometimes the words "just flow." A composer may feel that the music "comes to her." Inspiration in this sense is rare enough to be greatly prized, but it is common enough that many of us experience it to some extent. Indeed, it is not altogether discontinuous from quite ordinary experience.
The Fingers can be Inspired, Too
Athletes know it; musicians know it; and small children learning to walk know it, too. Inspiration is not a matter of the psyche alone; it is also a matter of the body. Our hands can be inspired by God when we play the piano if our minds don't get in the way. Whoever thinks that inspiration is merely psychic has not looked long at the piano.
This does not mean that the inspiration comes easily. Often it takes very hard work, sometimes for many years, to prepare the fingers for inspiration. And during this process it can help if there is some intellectual understanding. But if the inspiration is to be complete, the mind must be in service to the body, to the fingers. We must come to our senses.
This homecoming is one way that God becomes flesh in human life. It is true that music can glorify God, and it is also true that God can glorify fingers. When the fingers are glorified the Melody becomes flesh. Christians call it incarnation; others call it love. Wisdom and compassion, kindness and creativity, courage and determination, trust and beauty -- they are various expressions of love. When we see them around us, and when they unfold within us, the fingers are dancing, no matter how awkward the sounds.
-- Jay McDaniel