Every person is capable of wondrous creativity. Every person can learn to play the piano, create improvisations, and compose music.
How do I know? Years ago, I was a music major at Cal Arts, the California Institute of the Arts, where all non-music majors are required to take two years of piano lessons. I was asked to head the Secondary Piano Program, teaching piano to all the non-music majors.
Each semester, I had a hundred students. Three out of four of them entered my class not knowing how to play piano at all. Moreover, most of them thought that they had no musical talent. Within two years, every one of them not only learned to play the piano, but became expert at musical composition and improvisation.
What was my secret? No secret at all. Judaism teaches that every person is a tzelem Elokim, created "in the image of God." Though only God is the ultimate Creator, Who can create something from nothing, every person created in God's image can create something from something. Creativity is a spiritual process which, because we are all spiritual beings, is accessible to all of us.
Some people are more talented than others, and I'm not saying that everyone will end up performing in Carnegie Hall. But if you have a soul, you can create. Anyone who has the notion that the world of creativity is reserved for a special few simply has not yet tapped into the rich and deeply spiritual world of creativity that exists for all. Everyone can tap into the holy world of music.
Spiritual Piano Playing is accomplished by making oneself a pure instrument for God's music. The problem is not how to create music; the problem is how to remove the impediments that block the music that's flowing from the transcendental Source. To become a creator, the student's work is to allow his or her vessel to empty of all the egoistic blockages, so that God's music can flow through him or her. At the height of the creative process, the musician/artist/writer feels animated by a Higher Source. They often say, "My hands are playing, but the music is coming from the One Above."
The opposite of the creative process is self-criticism.
The opposite of the creative process is self-criticism. Most children grow up with heavy doses of criticism from well-meaning parents and teachers. Whatever the child does is either "bad" or "wrong" or "not good enough." Children internalize this criticism, carrying it with them into adulthood as self-criticism; it becomes the dam that blocks all their creative energy.
Spiritual Piano Playing requires the opposite of criticism. To improvise, the student must stop trying to criticize, censor, and control, and instead allow music to emerge freely, without judgment, from the soul within. To improvise on the piano (or to paint or write, etc.) the student must suspend all self-judgment. (The time for editing is after the piece is created, not during the creative process.
There is, in all of us, a yetzer hara, a negative, destructive force, the voice of ego, which rasps: "That sounds stupid... I feel silly... That theme is boring... I made a mistake... I can't play it well enough... What will others think of this composition?" For creativity to take place, this voice must be ignored.
I tell my students not to listen to these self-judgmental messages, to turn them off like a radio interfering with our piano lessons. When my students are improvising, I give them complete approval, without any judgmental feedback. I tape their improvisation, and play it back to them. Even with very young students, the fact that I valued their composition enough to record it builds their self-esteem and frees them to compose even more beautifully.
I tell all of my students: "There's no such thing as a mistake -- only a creative opportunity. Anytime a note gets in that a student didn't mean to play, I teach the student how to make it work within the piece or how to use it as a starting point to move into a different section with the music.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of a teacher intently listening to a child‘s needs and desires. Too often, teachers automatically take so much control in lessons, seeking to mold the child into a young imitation of themselves that they actually squash the young student's innate quest to learn and create.
Listening to one's student's needs non-judgmentally, and balancing this with guidance, is a difficult feat. Giving direction is a natural inclination for a teacher, but it often interferes with allowing the student's creativity to emerge from within. To allow creativity to emerge, teachers need to let go of their own personal expectations and agendas for their students.
Most piano teachers ignore the individual leanings of each particular student. They give the students a set amount of time to learn each piece, whether the piece is a favorite of the child's or one that he dislikes. This mechanical approach is diametrically opposed to the spiritual approach, which affirms the Divine essence of every student. A computer can play with virtuoso dexterity, but only a Divine soul can play with "soul," with feeling. Only a Divine soul can create.
FROM FAILURE TO SUCCESS
Lisa (not her real name) was 12 years old. She was learning disabled, with ADHD. Lisa couldn't sit still or concentrate, couldn't absorb or learn anything, couldn't retain information, was failing in school, and had no friends. Though she behaved with a certain bravado, this was a cover-up for low self-esteem.
Lisa's parents brought her to me. "Please give our daughter something she can succeed in!" they begged. "Something that will help her to feel good about herself."
My approach is to enter the child's inner world, with acceptance and without any judgments. I had Lisa improvise at the piano. She would compose a few bars of music and transcribe them onto music paper. Then I'd ask her to visualize a title for her melody, and put lyrics or a story to the music, to draw a picture illustrating the song. I would ask her to dance to the rhythm of the song.
Thus the full range of Lisa's creativity was tapped. And for everything she did, I gave her only positive feedback, with no criticism at all.
As the months went by, Lisa herself began to make requests about what she wanted to learn. She wanted to learn how to read music, she said. And how to play classical pieces. Since every step was coming from her own personal will, her motivation to learn was extremely high. She learned with lightning speed.
As her self-confidence grew, Lisa also did better in school.
In order for this process to succeed, I knew that her family's support was crucial. I taped the numerous compositions that Lisa composed, and suggested that she share the recordings with her family. Meanwhile, I encouraged Lisa's family to pay close attention and to seek out some merit in every piece that she composed. Soon, Lisa was setting up performances in her home, playing her compositions, arrangements, improvisations, and classical pieces. Her family listened carefully and pointed out what they liked about each piece. Lisa's self-confidence grew.
As her self-confidence grew, Lisa also did better in school. A few years went by, and Lisa could read and transpose music. She had capable classical piano skills. She could perform, compose, arrange, and improvise, as well as write lyrics. Lisa became an excellent singer, joined a choir, won the lead in several of her high school plays, and became a phenomenal poetess. She composed 15 amazing pieces of music in various styles: Jewish, Broadway, classical, etc.
Later still, Lisa created operas and plays. Today this formerly learning-disabled child is a brilliant, prolific, and successful professional composer.
Music is, by nature, therapeutic. Once you learn how to improvise, you can express on the instrument whatever you're feeling. It's sort of a musical homeopathy. If you're feeling depressed, you don't decide that, since depression is something bad that you shouldn't be feeling, you'll play happy music to try to counteract it. Instead, you play music that matches how you feel. As you improvise the music that expresses whatever state of mind you're in, without judging it, the music naturally transforms into a different state, usually positive, and you transform along with it.
A person who learns this spiritual approach to creativity will never be hampered by "writer's block" or its corresponding version in other art forms. As long as we believe that the creative expression is coming from us, we're vulnerable to dry periods and "not being in the mood." But when I believe that my creative expression flows through me from a Higher Source, then I'm connected to an inexhaustible Source of inspiration, at all times and in all moods.
Especially with children, the spiritual approach to music lessons can make the difference between an unpleasant and pleasant experience (How many adults remember with horror their childhood piano lessons?) and a fascinating journey into the child's inner kingdom.
The essential ingredient here is respect for the child's inner world. An adult has much to learn from it. This kingdom consists of the child's life experiences, feelings, worldview, strengths and weaknesses, values, self-image, past traumas, places that need to heal, and, of course, his soul. When tapping into a student's inner reservoir, the teacher continually discovers what direction the child needs to take with his or her music not only in order to learn new skills, but also to create, grow, heal, and become transformed. Since life and human beings are always changing, teachers need to continually re-tune into their students' inner world.
When the teacher enters the student's inner world, without judgment, the child then learns how to safely enter this sacred world by him/herself. Once this occurs, the child can explore limitlessly and grow in multiple directions by engaging in the creative process.
In this way, Spiritual Piano Lessons are life lessons.
This article originally appeared in © Mishpacha Magazine 2006