This story shows how our primary gift as musicians—our intense receptivity to musical sound—can increase musical expressiveness and improve physical coordination.
Bill had been working hard for a long time to release tension in his hands, arms, and shoulders. He video recorded every lesson with me, and each time I pointed out the places where his muscles were working too hard. His improvement was consistent, but it was hard for him to focus on these physical details throughout his practicing—he just loved the music so much and got easily carried away by it.
His deep musical feeling always came through his playing, despite the excess tension. But the pieces were so challenging—virtuosic Scriabin, complex and refined Mozart, a Bach fugue in four voices.
Then one day he started to work on something slow that satisfied his appetite for gorgeous music: The second movement of Schumann’s G minor sonata. I remembered playing it when I was 18, and I was totally in love with it. It’s one of those incredible pieces that opens up an intimate, poetic inner world.
Because the piece is slow and beautiful, it was much easier for me than before to help Bill slow down and enjoy every sound. I asked him to play only a half bar at a time and to stop on each beat and just notice the beautiful harmony. Within a couple minutes, something really shifted in Bill. His face looked enraptured, like I had never seen it. It was so wonderful to see him thoroughly engaged with sound like this.
When I asked him what it was like to experience that, he looked surprised and said, “I almost feel high.“ I replied, “This experience is always available to you when you play the piano.”
I was thrilled that Bill had discovered this new level of musical receptivity. His sound became richer and more radiant. His playing became more spacious, with a deeper intensity than before.
He came into his next lesson playing with much less tension in his hands. It was almost like he had flipped a switch—the listening gave him so much satisfaction that he had stopped trying so hard.
Bill now felt much closer to being the kind of pianist he wanted to be. He described it this way: “People always want to play loud. But I always go for soft. Anyone can play loud. But to me, soft playing allows you to be really controlled and nuanced.”
Those are the words of an artist. I’m proud of you, Bill, for all of your hard work and for making this artistic breakthrough. Thank you for your patience and motivation. What a pleasure it is to hear you making such beautiful music.