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Reflections on the 48 - an ongoing series

1.  Prelude and Fugue in C major from Book 1


AND I HEAR THE MU-SIC                 (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject


Education (from the Latin e-ducare) means to draw out from. In other words, good education is not about putting knowledge into someone, but about drawing out the wisdom that is already there. How does this relate to teaching the piano? Firstly, think of the act of teaching as a wake-up call to yourself. A wake-up call to be in a space of good listening. A wake-up call to be fully present. One of the key things to observe is how mental tension leads to physical tension. If you can be aware of this in yourself it will inevitably help your own playing. But it will also give you a clue as to what you can see happening to your pupils. People tighten up physically in many different ways at the piano - some hunch their shoulders, some lock their jaw, some tighten the forearms or the wrists, some generate tension in the lower back. Behind all of these there will be some mental movement. Maybe a movement of fear as a difficult passage is coming up - maybe a block of dense black notes - or a change of key to A flat minor. Or maybe a movement of contentment, of feeling good that things are going well only to then stumble across something which is in fact much simpler. As in ‘Pride comes before a fall’. This is like the danger of thinking that you are meditating well - that very movement of the mind is itself fixing something as a solid experience rather than allowing it to be a dynamic process. To play the piano really well requires a clear intention to be fully present in the sound. The sound is continually changing like water flowing over a rock in the river. So to be present in the sound means to allow the sound to go. As soon as we hold onto the sound - as in thinking ‘I did that passage really well’ - then we have stopped being present. The deep wisdom of knowing that everything is changing, that everything is flow, that nothing is fixed, nothing is solid, is deep within us. It is something that we are born with. The ultimate meaning of education, then, is to help someone draw out from this natural wisdom which is hidden or dormant. One of the great joys of teaching the piano is to see in microcosm this process of awakening. When someone experiences a letting-go of ‘trying’ and a sense of real progress in the sound, this is the place of enlightenment, the place of joy for teacher and pupil alike. None of this can happen without the simple act of showing up. It is no good just waiting for the moment of inspiration for that may never arrive. We have to show up to practising regularly, and work on our intention regularly. We have to put in the time in faith that something will happen. It is like planting seeds in the garden in faith that somehow in the darkness of the earth transformation will happen and the plant will emerge into the daylight and grow. In this, learning the piano is very much like meditation. If we only practise once a week - maybe before we have a lesson - then we are not going to get the same opening up, the same transformation as if we practise every day. Even if the total amount of time is the same. Again, it is like the seed in the ground. Imagine if it was only light for one day a week - even if it was light for a full 24 hours that day, it would not compensate for the darkness the rest of the week. Showing up to practise sounds really simple - but what we are confronted with again and again is the inner critic, the inner distracter, the inner ego personality doing its best to fill our minds with excuses for moving our attention somewhere else. Learning the piano, then, is not so much about learning an external skill but about exploring and coming to terms with the internal landscape. Coming to feel at ease with both the demand to show up and practise, and the freedom to let go of chasing after a particular result. It is both incredibly simple and extraordinarily difficult at one and the same time.


2.  Prelude and Fugue in C minor from Book 1




AND RECEIVE               (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject

The journey of composing the Musical Remedies, the set of pieces matching the energies of the 38 Bach Flower Remedies, was essentially one of discovering and receiving emotional resonance. I did not set out with a project of something to achieve; indeed I really didn’t set out at all. I simply went to the piano and started improvising early one morning. When a clear melody emerged I sketched it down in the traditional way with pencil and manuscript paper along with a few chord symbols. I had no idea what it was or where it was going. As new melodies revealed themselves in the days that followed all I remember now is the clarity and the speed. When after nine days I saw the chart of the Bach Flower Remedies lying on top of the piano something clicked. I realised at a conscious level what I had been receiving in a different part of the brain. From what I understand now I might guess that what was happening was a heightened sense of hypnopompic awareness in which I was experiencing the clarity and creativity of that place between half-waking/half dreaming and being fully awake. But instead of lying in bed dozing I had been propelled upright and was sitting at the piano receiving these new melodies. The Musical Remedies are not at all radical musically; they are not at all avant-garde. They are for the most part tonal easily accessible music. Where they are radical is in their touching the roots of the emotional states associated with the Flower Remedies. At the time my knowledge of these emotional states was very sketchy - I knew Olive was for help with exhaustion and Gorse for help with feeling depressed and uncreative, but that was about all. The journey proceeded through the next nine months. I can remember the sense of urgency as the time went by - how I knew that it had to realised by the end of the year. What I did not realise at the time was how this process resonated so strongly with that of pregnancy and giving birth. The initial flood of energy, not knowing what was happening; the sudden realisation of what it was; the emotional ups and downs as the project grew and took clearer shape; the feeling stuck at quite a late stage; the rush of energy which finally resulted in the last five pieces being written down between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, just over nine months after the first morning at the piano. Maybe this parallel with pregnancy and giving birth is the clue to understanding the significance of emotional resonance. The thirty eight Flower Remedies seem to contain the full range of mental states, the full spectrum of possibilities, both negative and positive, and the full range of potential for transformation. When we think of Impatiens, the journey is from irritable tension to patience and empathy. With Clematis it is from daydreaming to a rooted creativity. These are the qualities that I resonated with in the new compositions - and these are the qualities that I resonated with several years later when I found the Bach to Bach connections. I was practising the Prelude and Fugue in C minor from Book 1 of the 48 when it suddenly hit me how similar the energy of this piece is to Impatiens. The sense of irritable tension in urgent need of resolution. Immediately I thought of the Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor from Book 1 and thought how similar that is to the daydreaming energy of Clematis. Now Impatiens and Clematis were the first of the Flower Remedies that Dr Edward Bach discovered so there seemed a real clarity in the fact that these two links revealed themselves first to me. The Bach to Bach creative journey had begun.


3.  Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major from Book 1




THROUGH THE WORLD               (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject

In one way, numbers appear to offer a limited number of possibilities. After all, including zero, there are only ten of them : 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Every other number is formed from this finite simple group, even such exotic numbers as 3/4 to the power 5/2. But from a different perspective in the human mind there are an infinite number of possibilities in the number world. There are even an infinite number of very special numbers like prime numbers and Fibonacci numbers. When it comes to music we find a similar paradox. It seems at first glance - or maybe first hearing - that there are only twelve different notes, and all the pieces of music in the world are simply different combinations of those same twelve notes. For the vast majority of Western music this is in the theoretical sense true. But in a more subtle sense you only have to talk to a violinist to learn that an A sharp in the key of B is not the same sound as a B flat in the key of F. For the pianist maybe, but not for anyone able to use their ear to create different pitches on their voice or instrument. Sound is physical vibration - notes sound ‘good’ together, what music theorists call consonant, because their vibrations match up mathematically. Notes sound ‘bad’ together, or what music theorists call dissonant, because their vibrations do not match up mathematically. Harmony is created out of different combinations of consonance and dissonance. If you play a major seventh interval, e.g. C and the B above, together on the piano the energy of the sound is harsh and is interpreted by many, perhaps most, people as being quite unpleasant. But now if you add the E and the G in the middle and play all four notes together the sound is quite different. The major seventh chord which results is a familiar jazz harmony and is interpreted by many people as mellow, cool, sophisticated. Many people who insist that they cannot understand or enjoy ‘modern music’ (which sadly for some includes most of the last 100 years) because of the dissonance will nonetheless accept and enjoy the ‘same’ dissonance, e.g. a minor ninth, in Bach or Beethoven. In other words, context is everything. Numbers, like musical notes, do not fascinate in isolation but in the way that they combine together, the way they hold memories, the way they make promises for the future. People belive in lucky numbers, they will choose birthday and anniversary date numbers for lottery tickets. They also believe in unlucky numbers - I was fascinated as a young child in suburban Birmingham by the absence of the number 13 from the house numbers in every road. Some numbers gain mythic significance very rapidly in the modern world. What do you first think of in relation to 42.................... 13 3/4 ............ 9 3/4............. 9/11............... * Equally some numbers can have multiple signifiers - does the number 111 make you think first of cricket or Beethoven? The two images for me - one of the cricket umpire David Sheppard standing on one leg until the batsmen scored another run; the other the extraordinary use of unusual time signatures like 12/32 in Beethoven’s last piano sonata - are both strongly connected to the number 111.

It has often been suggested that musical and mathematical ability go together, but in some ways they seem to come from very different areas of the brain. In my experience it is often the case that people who are very competent at sight reading and music theory are also good at mathematics. But these skills in themselves do not guarantee that someone is really musical. A good ear for music in terms of awareness of sound, pitch pulse, dynamic, articulation and phrasing does not appear to come from the same part of the brain. The result is that it is possible to be really musical whilst still finding the more mathematical skills of sight reading and music theory quite elusive.


*  My guess is for most Westerners : Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Adrian Mole; Harry Potter train platform; New York 2001


4.    Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor from Book 1




I used to have a profound mistrust of anyone who told me that they enjoyed practising scales - but now I hear myself explaining to others how interesting they can be! What is happening? Well one thing is very clear. To practise scales in a way that you want to, when you want to, and with some real sense of purpose is quite different from the common experience of having to practise scales in a tightly proscribed way in order to be tested on them in the course of an examination. One of the most interesting and beneficial ways of practising scales on the piano is as a tool in discovering a true independence of touch between the two hands. Play as slowly as you want to, left hand legato and right hand staccato. Be aware of each sound beginning and ending. Be aware of the different physical sensations in the two hands. Change around - play the left hand staccato and the right hand legato. Next, try playing loud and soft - left hand forte,right hand piano; then right hand forte, left hand piano. Even if you stay resolutely on C major this routine will show you how slowly you need to go to experience real independence of control between the two hands. Giving a few minutes each day to this routine will pay huge dividends when it comes to playing real music, whether classical, pop or jazz. If you feel comfortable playing scales in lots of different ways with lots of different touches you will find that your journey into the heart of what a new piece is really about will proceed much faster. One of the key elements to getting inside the positive scale experience is an understanding of the circle of keys. It still saddens me to realise just how many people have practised scales for years without anyone ever explaining the circle of keys to them satisfactorily. I have also met many people over the years who have passed their Grade V examination in Music Theory who seem to have little if any practical knowledge of how the circle of keys actually works at the piano. On the other hand, however, I have had the positive experience of teaching practical music theory to many people who have suddenly seen how everything works at the piano and how it can indeed be an enjoyable experience to play patterns, both melodic and harmonic, in all twelve different tonalities. Practising scales with different touch between the hands and understanding the circle of keys at the piano are both excellent preparation for the journey through the 48 Preludes and Fugues. This journey embraces all the keys, including the very obscure D sharp minor with its C double sharps (ignored even by the examination boards in favour of the identically sounding but differently notated E flat minor). This journey embraces a wide range of dynamics, a wide range of effective articulations, and a wide range of fingering challenges to sort out. but more than all this, the journey embraces a huge range of emotional resonance and colour. This has been the driving force behind my own exploration, both in terms of playing and also in terms of relating some of the pieces to my own Musical Remedies, a set of compositions based on the Bach Flower Remedies. Understanding and practising the scales relates to playing and experiencing the 48 Preludes and Fugues in the same way that understanding the structure of the plants helps an appreciation of the possibilities of the various Bach Flower Remedies. In the case of the scales there is a simple finite structure which underpins an open field of musical experience. In the case of the plants there are clear tendencies about how particular plants flourish which give all the clues as to how the Remedies can help the subtleties of the ever-changing mental state. This is all explored in great depth in Julian Barnard’s wonderful book Bach Flower Remedies : Form and Function. It was a few years ago now when I was practising the C minor Prelude from Book 1 of the 48 that I was suddenly struck by the similar emotional resonance to that of the first of the Bach Flower Remedies, Impatiens. There was something about the incessant semiquavers and the way they lead into an even faster section near the end that led me to link the two together. Soon afterwards I was practising the Prelude in E flat minor from Book 1 and was very struck by the daydreaming quality of the music and a similar emotional resonance to the second of the Flower Remedies, Clematis. And so this journey of mine continued until I had identified twelve Preludes and Fugues from the 48 matching up with the Twelve Great Healers, the first set of the Flower Remedies which Dr Edward Bach discovered. The resulting Bach to Bach programme which emerged from this is something I have performed four times now. It is a deeply meditational programme, transforming and intertwining sounds and energies in a fascinating journey of discovery. For those who are interested, the full set of connections is as follows : Impatiens Prelude and Fugue in C minor (Book 1) Clematis Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor (Book 1) Mimulus Prelude and Fugue in G minor (Book 1) Agrimony Prelude and Fugue in D minor (Book 1) Chicory Prelude and Fugue in A minor (Book 1) Vervain Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor (Book 1) Centaury Prelude and Fugue in F minor (Book 2) Cerato Prelude and Fugue in F sharp minor (Book 2) Scleranthus Prelude and Fugue in E minor (Book 1) Water Violet Prelude and Fugue in E major (Book 1) Gentian Prelude and Fugue in A flat major (Book 1) Rock Rose Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor (Book 1)


5.  Prelude and Fugue in D major from Book 1






IN SOUND                        (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!

Many years ago I had the idea for a research project which would philosophically and psychologically explore the communality of the experience of great music. Concerts which create such a strong and powerful experience that the usual stream-of-thoughts present in each member’s consciousness is overtaken by the communal experience of the music. On a few occasions in my life I have been present at concerts which felt as if they were world-changing events – I remember as a teenager a performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming in Oxford, long before he was well known in this country. There were only around fifty people present but it felt as if a whole new world of musical experience was opening up before our very eyes. In 1988 I saw Abdullah Ibrahim perform his composition Mandela live in London soon before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The power and commitment of his playing convinced me that music could make real political change possible. These experiences have been a profound influence on my life. In the world of art therapy there is a word for this powerful shared experience – intersubjectivity. Experience which is shared at a deep level and which resonates in a similar way with different people at a level other than that which words can articulate. I went on a songwriting course once where three out of nine people on the course, myself included, were all writing challenging songs about our fathers at the same time. Not a word had been spoken in the group or to one another about our fathers. It was only when the songs had been written and we came to sing them to the whole group that the ‘conicidence’ became apparent. But was it coincidence? Or had we become more open than usual to accessing a deeper layer of the collective unconscious. There will always be some people who are more sceptical than others about the ‘reality’ of shared experience at this level – but there is understandably a communality of descriptions of mystical experiences across cultures, across centuries, across different stages of life. In the Orthodox Christian Liturgy the stage of moving from the individual-subjective experience is mapped out clearly. In the singing of the Cherubic Hymn we put aside ‘all cares of this life’ and place ourselves alongside the invisible orders of angels in worshipping the divine reality. When we receive communion the deep level experience is then of unity with the very essence of life, Christ as the divine DNA. In the light of this experience, the perennial questions in Western Christian history as to the nature of the Real Presence become irrelevant in much the same way as the sceptics’ questioning of the efficacy of homeopathy becomes irrelevant when you have seen a baby being transformed from a dangerously high fever to a calm sleep within twenty minutes of taking some Belladonna... When we approach the piano from this angle anything is possible. We teach well by being open in heart and mind, by allowing space for the angels to play with us and our pupils, and by immersing ourselves in an intersubjective experience of the music. By giving our ‘small self’ up we receive our ‘deep Self’ again and again. And while we cannot MAKE this experience happen for anyone else we can at least facilitate the conditions in which such experience is possible.


7. Prelude and Fugue in E flat major from Book 1




THERE ARE TWO PRELUDES AND TWO FUGUES       (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!

There are twelve different notes in the chromatic scale, and then we return to the opening note again, an octave higher. The octave always sounds in harmony because the frequencies of the notes match up in simple mathematical ratios. Similarly the fifths in between the octaves. For instance : - //A 110 /E 165 /A 220 E/ 330 A/ 440 E// 660 Each of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale is the base note for two scales, one major and one minor. The Well-Tempered Clavier consists of two pieces - a Prelude and a Fugue - for each and every major and minor key. One collection of pieces was written in the 1720s; the other in the 1740s. In total, then, we have 12 x2 x2 x2 = 96 short pieces of music. But the collection is always known as the ’48’ because the Prelude and Fugue are always played consecutively as if they were different movements of a single piece. Other composers have written sets of pieces in all the twenty-four keys. For piano, the most famous are Chopin’s set of Preludes, Op 28 and Shostakovich’s sets of Preludes Op 34 and Preludes and Fugues, Op 87, inspired by the composer’s hearing the Bach ’48’ performed by Tatiana Nikoleyeva in 1950. But why not symphonies? No-one as far as I know has ever tried to write a symphony in all 24 keys. The largest collection of symphonies is that of Haydn, which at 104 is unlikely to be surpassed. There are, nonetheless, several keys that he left untouched. There are many practical difficulties tuning string and wind instruments together in more complex keys, and so the majority of symphonies in the classical and romantic eras were written in keys with no more than three sharps or flats. Meanwhile, the piano plays equally well in all keys - or equally badly in all keys if you happen to have the sort of perfect pitch that most of us are glad we don’t have! When I think of the number of symphonies written by famous composers I think immediately of 1,4,7,9,15,41 and 104. Of these numbers the 9 is famously important for proving an end point for several composers. Mahler, indeed, was so nervous about writing a 9th symphony in case it was his last that he famously titled his major symphonic work Das Lied von der Erde instead of Symphony No. 9. Now, in the spirit of making unlikely connections, if we take this special symphony number, 9, and multiply by the special chromatic scale number, 12, we arrive at one of the most powerful sacred numbers in all the world, 108. In the Tibetan tradition as indeed in many much earlier Asian traditions the number 108 takes on a special significance - the number of beads on a mala, the number of mantras chanted in one cycle of prayers. Astrologically, 108 is 9 Heavenly Bodies x 12 Signs of the Zodiac. It is 27 Lunar Mansions X 4 phases of the moon. In Buddhism it is also 6 (consciousnesses) x 3 (preferences) x 3 (times - past, present and future) x2 (virtuous or non-virtuous). It also happens to be the case that the distance between the Earth and the Sun is 108 times the Sun’s diameter, and the distance between the Earth and the Moon is 108 times the Moon’s diameter. The Sun’s diameter also happens to be 108 times that of the earth. Why are numbers so important to us? Clearly in some ways they correspond to things that we understand - or think that we understand - very dimly. They are a tool for creating patterns of order in the chaos; they give us a framework for seeing and interpreting the world.In other ways, they seem to correspond to material reality - there is this particular number of children, this particular number of musical keys. From a slightly different perspective, however, we can see that the numbers we think of as ‘normal’ are in fact the exception. On a sliding scale of all numbers, 1,2 and 3 are all extraordinary exceptions just as on the sliding scale of all musical vibrations, what we on the piano call C,D and E are extraordinary exceptions. A violinist can understand this more easily than a humble pianist, for the latter can only play the notes which are set in front of him/her whereas the violinist can make an infinite number of notes between for example the D/ and E/ of the piano. Where does his leave us? Maybe with a sense of wonder that we really understand so little. The numbers that we love to make sense of our lives are only a tiny fraction of the whole. Just as the physicists are discovering that the very stuff of the material cosmos is for the most part emptiness rather than solidity. Just as the mystics of all traditions have always known that the reality we think we understand is but a tiny fraction of the big picture.


8.  Prelude and Fugue in E flat/D sharp minor from Book 1



TO RELAXATION    (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!

One of the most powerful obstacles in practising the piano is the demon of trying too hard. Most of us have been told at some point in our young lives that we must try harder, that we cannot expect to succeed if we don’t try harder, that we must always try to do our best. Maybe even that it is more important to try than to succeed. It is difficult to run counter to all this well-intentioned advice and say ‘No, I am not going to try harder. I am going to try less’ But unless you do, piano practise will remain a struggle rather than a joy. I have watched this process so often in so many people, myself included. The harder you try to master a tricky passage on the piano, the more physical tension is created in the body. This increase in physical tension - be it in the shoulders, arms, wrists, back of the hands or wherever - makes the very fine level of coordination that is necessary more and more difficult to attain. This in turn leads to an increase in the mental frustration which then ratchets up the physical tension until it is counter-productive to go on practising at all. How to break through this vicious circle? The simple answer is by easing up on the trying - trying too hard is counter-productive. We have to find a balance between clear relaxed thinking and a strong sense of being present. Our ‘trying hard’ energy needs to be chanelled or converted into a commitment to staying with the process in the present. Then within this presence, this commitment to staying with the process, we can relax. We can observe the details of fingering, the details of hand movements, of hand coordination. We can repeat the series of movements that are necessary - slowly, in a relaxed way. Gradually, relaxed mind leads to relaxed body. We start to see, hear and feel that our energy is flowing, our hands are moving easily, the music has a quality of movement, gentle connection and flowing breath. The movement from trying too hard to allowing the music to breathe is a journey that we embark on every time we practise the piano. It is not something we can tick off like a shopping list but a way of being that we need to remember again and again. Understood like this, practising the piano is a spiritual discipline in the same way that running can be. The instrument and the music are not demons to conquer or master, but allies to make friends with. And just as we don’t tend to make friends in life by trying too hard, we cannot expect to make friends with the piano by trying too hard either. During my many years of teaching the piano I have watched and guided this morvement from ‘trying too hard’ to ‘relaxed awareness’ so many times in so many people - and it still brings a real sense of joy to see it happening.


9. Prelude and Fugue in E major from Book 1



RIGHT FOOT FOR-WARD              (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!

      Pulse is perhaps that most universal musical parameter. We feel a pulse in our body and we feel the way that changes when we rest, when we exercise, when we are emotionally agitated, when we meditate. We have at the same time an awareness that the rate or speed of pulse can change. Musically speaking, there is no doubt that some people find it much easier than others to hold on to a steady pulse. I still have little idea as to why this is so but I do know that it is very difficult to teach someone a good sense of pulse if they don’t have one. Metronomes are a useful aid of course but I have found over many years of teaching that many quite accomplished and musical people find it near to impossible to play consistently in time with a metronome. Of course there are many layers of complexity in playing even quite a simple piano piece and it seems clear that as the layers of complexity expand the brain becomes more aware of some layers than others. Pulse would appear to be one of the simplest layers but if awareness of the pulse goes there is next to no chance of creating a satisfying or successful musical performance. Often in working on a classical slow movement I have seen people master a complex passage in demisemiquavers only to falter when it comes to playing a bar with two crotchets and a rest. What is needed is not just an awareness of the pulse but an awareness of the inner division of the pulse. It is worth spending a lot of time on this, being absolutely clear what the difference is between 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 on the one hand and 1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 on the other, assuming that the pulse always remains the same. Clapping these rhythms creates an aural, physical and structural awareness of the difference between 4/4 and 12/8 time; for many people it can also help to develop an awareness of the difference between straight and swung quavers. This is a very practical approach to understanding music theory; also to feeling the relationship between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ musical languages. In my experience, though, it is much easier to teach this to youngsters than it is to adults who often need to ‘unlearn’ much of what they have fixed in their minds. And that I think is the real crux of the problem - having clear knowledge and ideas about pulse is not the same as hearing and feeling the pulse. To feel at ease playing music this knowledge needs to be embodied. For some people this is very obvious but for others it is way out of their comfort zone. In my now extensive experience of teaching piano I would say that the lack of an embodied sense of pulse is the biggest obstacle to more musical playing. It is more of an obstacle with adults because they tend to think that they must surely be beyond the stage of clapping pulses and dividing them into 2s and 3s. But the fact is that a couple of minutes spent on this every day will save months of frustration and wasted effort. And the great thing is that this is something that you can practise anytime you are walking. Simply treat each step as a single pulse and internally divide the steps into 2 and then into 3 and then into 4. Repeat as many times as you want! 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a 1 er and a 2 er and a 3 er and a 4 er and a Do this while you are walking every day for a month and hear what a difference it makes to your piano playing!


10. Prelude and Fugue in E minor from Book 1





 HEAR THE MU-SIC FLOW-ING          (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject

Improvisation is something that we all do every time we have a conversation, every time we answer the telephone, every time we go into a shop. It is a fundamental part of normal human experience. So what is it that happens when as a teacher you ask many ‘classically’ trained musicians to improvise? The panic which often ensues suggests that they might have been told to stand in front of the class with all their clothes removed. To some people who have learnt music from the ‘dots’ on the page rather than by ear the instruction to improvise undoubtedly starts alarm bells ringing in the head. The demons of terror are let loose, the inner critic is laughing with scorn before a single note is played, the hands become paralysed with fear. Fear of ‘getting it wrong’, of not being good enough, of not being in control, of being laughed at, of being put down… And yet sometimes within fifteen or twenty minutes these same people are happily and successfully improvising with a pentatonic scale with their right hand while I play a simple chord sequence underneath. They are amazed to find that they really can improvise after all. So what has changed? On a physical level there is no doubt that there has been a relaxation of tension – the chronic tension which was preventing flow has relaxed sufficiently to allow flow to happen. And preceding this there has been a mental shift, a shift in thinking which has allowed a ‘solid’ problem to dissolve. The way of effecting this shift can be as simple as breathing – when in doubt, breathe out! Some other pupils – those who have learnt music much more by ear – improvise so naturally and easily that to begin with there is nothing to teach. Yet sometimes here the panic arises if I suggest that they might play from some written music. I have seen and heard wonderful flowing musical players become like wooden statues when attempting to play from written music. Their natural musical confidence is knocked aside and replaced with the fear of getting it wrong, of not being good enough, of not being in control etc. There is no reason why someone cannot be a good ‘reader’ AND a good ‘improviser’. These are not either/or abilities but both/and abilities like reading a language and speaking it. If we think of many of the great composers of the past – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt – it is immediately apparent that they were equally at ease with reading and writing music and also ‘speaking’ it through improvisation. A good teacher needs to have worked through their own demons of fear in order to help pupils work through theirs. The musical benefits of working in both directions are great – a balance of freedom and discipline, an increased sense of presence in the sound, an increased sense of opening mind, heart and body to the experience, and engaged sound which draws an audience into a performance. Both the journeys from confident improviser to confident music reader and vice versa depend on an increased appreciation and understanding of musical structures. To read piano music well you need to understand about chord structures. Then you find that you do not need to read every note individually. To improvise well you need to understand scale patterns. Then you find that you do not need to register every note that you play as an individual entity. The resulting flowing whole is always more than the sum of the parts. Enjoy!


11.  Prelude and Fugue in F major from Book 1





 MINDFULNESS          (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject

The practice of mindfulness is both very old and very new in human consciousness and experience. Very old in that long before any modern religions developed - only within the last five thousand years - it is clear that people were practising mindfulness. Hunters and gatherers, nomadic people, people from the Arctic to the tropical rainforest, from the savannah to the desert. Mindfulness - being aware of what is happening while it is happening - was essential for survival. It has only been in more modern times, in what are commonly called more ‘civilised’ societies, that survival has NOT been so dependent on the cultivation of mindfulness. Yet in our contemporary Western society there is no doubt that mindfulness also has a very new dimension. Short courses in mindfulness are now available everywhere as more and more people learn something of the cost of our modern high-tech left brain dominated culture and how the practice of mindfulness can help to restore some balance and sanity. Most meditation practices depend on some sort of support or anchor, something to which the attention returns every time it wanders off. One of the meditation supports is a simple awareness of sound - sound arising, sound remaining, sound ceasing, particular sounds morphing into other sounds. Mindfulness practice increase your awareness of sounds that are actually here and now just as the traditional hunter would have been acutely aware of what sounds were actually present and what they would mean in terms of the presence of animals. We are now only just beginning to understand how important this awareness of sound is even for living creatures in the depths of the ocean - and how easily their survival is being threatened by the extraneous noise of ships above. John Cage’s notorious composition 4’33” - the so-called ‘silent’ piece - has been ridiculed by many people. But in some ways it is one of the most important musical works of the twentieth century because it makes us listen with much greater attention than is usual. It takes us into a mindful space where our ears are more open and our perennial left-brain analysis is quietened down. Seeing the piece performed live, in all of its three short movements, is an experience which can teach us how we might approach our own music making, whether performance, group work rehearsing, or solo practising. In my experience practising piano immediately after meditating makes this sort of awareness much easier to attain. Being aware of the arising of each sound, the morphing of each sound into another sound, the intensity of each sound, the tone colour of each sound, and the decay of each sound - all this is very much like putting a mirror to the use of sound as a mindfulness support in meditation. Attention to this whole constantly changing process means that our attention is present, and the constant change frees us from the need to fix our attention on one point rather than another. The experience of playing through an entire piece in this state of presence is that there is no effort required. When we contrast this with all the times we were told in life to make more effort, to try harder, we can see how absurd our ‘normal’ ways of thinking are. Every time we suggest to someone else that they should ‘try harder’ we are directing them AWAY from mindfulness. Every time we bring people’s attention in practising back to the actual here-and-now sound we are encouraging them TOWARDS mindfulness. In most pieces that we learn at the piano there are one or two passages which we continue to think of as ‘difficult’. And usually we manifest physical reactions to our fear of the difficulty just as we might do if suddenly put into a hunting situation where we have to work out how to survive in the presence of a wild and potentially dangerous animal. if we can stay really present we realise that the fear comes and goes, the physical manifestations of fear come and go, and that all we need to do is to stay present. Good piano practise is good mindfulness practise. And developing a good mindfulness practice will help you to develop deeper and ultimately more productive ways of practising the piano.

14.  Prelude and Fugue in F sharp minor from Book 1

At the beginning of the Liturgy in the Eastern Church the deacon says quietly to the priest ‘It is time for the Lord to act’. There have been a lot of preparations before this moment with material things such as the putting on of vestments, the cutting of bread and the lighting of candles. But it is now as if all that human activity can be put to one side and space created for the one thing which is really important - it is time for the Lord to act. Later on in the Liturgy, in the middle of the Cherubic hymn which is sung at the point known as the Great Entrance, we sing the phrase ‘lay aside all the cares of this life’. Once again we have the sense that what is really important needs to be given space beyond the undercurrent of our own mental chatter. What can all this mean to someone who feels no connection with the language of religion, indeed someone who might feel quite alienated by religion? I think to me these particular moments are so important because they make it clear that we are not in control of what happens, that we do not grow in awareness by trying too hard to do things, to get things right, or by worrying about things which have gone wrong. There are always things which are going wrong with our lives and in the lives of others that we love - but in accepting that and letting go of our need to change and control external events we find the simple joy and truth of being present in the richness and fullness of the present moment. In contemporary secular mindfulness practice an emphasis is often placed on setting the intention. What is the inner intention behind our desire to practise mindfulness? Are we able to both see and to see through our desire to practise in order to achieve more control, more happiness, more wisdom for the ego? Are we able to find a deeper desire - to practise in order to let go? In the end, happiness and wisdom do not come from trying too hard, from what most people call success, from wanting things to be different from how they are. Rather from finding a practice which brings you more fully into the present. In old fashioned religion this was called the ‘practice of the presence of God’; in the even older language of the Buddhist sutras it was called satipatthana - the practice of mindfulness. When we sit and prepare to play the piano, whether it is just on our own at home or in a hall with an audience listening, we can learn from all this. If we set our intention to open up to receive then we at once move away from the idea that we are trying to achieve something. In response to this mental movement, our physical and emotional responses relax. This makes a huge difference to our ability to receive. It’s like tuning a traditional radio receiver to get rid of the crackle and interference. So often I see that this is the real key to people enjoying their piano playing more. The inner demons which assail people when they learn the piano are not so different from the inner demons in other areas of life. But somehow in this particular activity they can seem very exposed - especially when playing in front of someone else like a teacher! I have known an adult pupil tell me that they were anxious about practising at home in case someone heard them make a mistake while walking past on the other side of the street. And I have never had an adult pupil who hasn’t told me - usually in every single lesson - that they played the piece better when they were at home only a few hours or days ago. It is hard as a teacher to convince someone to let go. This becomes a warning to the teacher. The desire to persuade someone else to let go also has to be let go of. This is analogous to the realisation in meditation of the need to compassionately accept instead of fighting the wandering nature of the mind. When we sit at the piano and have the simple intention of receiving the sound rather than making something happen then we enter into a different space. This is the ‘time for the Lord to act’, the time to ‘lay aside all the cares of this life’, the time to be simply present in mindful awareness. When you have the privilege of attending a concert where the artist or artists are able to enter this space your experience as a listener will be qualitatively different from a concert where the artist or artists may dazzle you with their technique and control but do not take you any deeper. As a reflective exercise, think of the three most memorable concerts you have ever been to and ask yourself what were the qualities that made them so memorable.





GO                                        (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!)



15. Prelude and Fugue in G major from Book 1

There’s no such thing as a difficult piece on the piano. Either a piece is impossible – or it is easy. The way in which it changes from the one to the other is by practising…..

I’m not sure which famous pianist first said this, but it is fact maddeningly true to experience. The only problem is that we don’t have  - or don’t think that we have
Enough time
Enough energy
Enough patience
Enough clarity of mind      and
Enough physical and mental coordination to engage in
Enough practise.

But if we did we would find that it is true. And even if we only find that it is true for one piece then we have discovered an important truth – that there is nothing to fear.

Einstein was once asked what he felt was the most important question for humanity. His answer was to find out whether the universe is essentially friendly and benign. If it is, he said, we have nothing to fear. We can therefore focus our energy on tuning into the universe’s positive field instead of putting up walls of defensive armour and protecting ourselves from endless imaginary tigers.

A lot of the blocks that manifest for people learning the piano are to do with imaginary tigers. There are so many excuses not to practise. There are so many feas about playing wrong notes – especially in front of teachers! There is so much tension which manifests in the body – shoulders, jaw, neck, forearm, wrist, even big toe (as I have discovered myself) But where does all this tension begin? Quite clearly it all begins in the mind –in the movement of fear which comes from anticipation of a difficulty which has not yet arisen.


Take a short passage which at present is impossible for you to coordinate.
Slow it right down, analyse every movement of the fingers which is necessary in this passage and clarify in your mind the exact order of those movements.
Remain emotionally detached from the results; simply observe what happens when you repeat and repeat and repeat.
 Relaxed mind makes for relaxed muscles.
 And one day without warning the light switches on in your mind – this is easy!

The bad news is that sometimes this state is achieved once and then appears to go away again. I have often seen and heard a pupil play something which they thought they couldn’t  - but then not be able to repeat the success. The way the mind tightens up is very subtle – the very thought that success has been achieved can produce a tightening in the muscles which makes it difficult to repeat the success.
Endless patience is needed – but if you persist you will find it is true. As long as you think something is difficult you will tighten up and it will remain impossible. When you have dissected it and analysed it and slowed it down and practised it again and again one day it will be easy.







THAT IT’S EA-SY                               (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!)


21.  Prelude and Fugue in B flat major from Book 1

One of the most substantial misgivings I have towards mainstream modern Western culture is the idea that language works primarily on a conceptual level. The idea that precision in terms of meaning or semantics is the most important aspect of language, and that if we moved towards a more exact conceptual understanding of language we would be closer to the ‘truth’. I remember when I was still a teenager discovering the Duino Elegies of Rainer Maria Rilke in German. There was no way that my German was up to reading his poetry and understanding it conceptually. But this poetry had an extraordinary effect on me, opening up new landscapes and new depths. Years later I remember attending an Orthodox service in Oxford for the first time. The service was all in Church Slavonic and conceptually I understood very little. Yet the overwhelming sense of the acceptance of the dark alongside the light in our experience came through the language at a much deeper non-conceptual level. More recently in my life two other experiences with languages have confirmed my view that the resonance of language communicates at different levels. At the Drubchen in Holy Isle in 2006 I had very little idea or understanding of what was going on. Continual chanting in Tibetan formed the backcloth of an intense experience of ‘re-ordering’. The whole ceremony was dedicated to the removal of obstacles both seen and unseen. It was in the middle of this chanting that I experienced my own ‘re-ordering’ and removal of obstacles. On the nineteenth anniversary of my father’s death I was suddenly aware of his presence in front of me. He had come to tell me that it wasn’t my fault that I had not been there when he died and that I did not need to hold onto this pain and grief any longer. I don’t pretend to know exactly how this happened, but I do know that the chanting in Tibetan had somehow opened up the liminal space within which it could happen. More recently still I attended workshops on the Aramiac Lord’s Prayer and Beatitudes with Neil Douglas-Klotz. Neil is a great scholar and has done a lot of work on the Aramaic language, unravelling layers of meaning which expand the horizons of the more familiar English - or Greek - texts enormously. But for me the experience of chanting the Aramaic was and remains different from chanting in a language which I understand conceptually. The Aramaic opens up a different layer, a different field of energy, which brings the inner living content of the prayers to life in a new way. My experience of music runs parallel to these experiences of different languages. Music speaks to different layers of the psyche, and it is not necessary to understand music conceptually in order to experience its power. Indeed the opposite may be true - that too much emphasis on trying to ‘understand’ music conceptually actually inhibits the human ability to receive the deeper layer of connectedness. To some extent this is true even for the creator of the musical experience, the composer. There is a qualitative difference between mastering various musical techniques of composition and having anything to really say through the musical medium. A good composer will use the techniques they have mastered at the service of a musical vision which goes beyond what can be conceptually explained. In the case of the Bach ’48’ this is particularly relevant and explains why the famous Donald Francis Tovey analyses of the pieces are so dry and soulless to anyone interested in articulating their experience of the inner vision of the music. There is a considerable unanimity of experience amongst people who have really listened to certain pieces of music such as the slow movement of the Schubert String Quintet, the slow movement of Beethoven’s A minor string quartet or the sixth and final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. With works such as these music functions as a meta-language in the way that once upon a time meta-physics showed people the possibilities and depth of physics. Maybe we are moving back in this direction again now that the languages of contemporary physics and mystical non-dual consciousness are seen to have so much in common. If we move through life as a flow with open mind and open heart then non-dual consciousness is always present as a possibility. If we approach composing, playing, listening to music with the same openness then here too there is always the possibility of breaking through. I have been very conscious when teaching adult music classes that often what people think they want to or need to know or understand is very different from what they actually want and need at a deeper level. So many people are still put off by the world of ‘contemporary classical’ music because they don’t think that they will be able to ‘understand’ it. Yet often the breakthrough comes by persuading them to ‘stand-under’ the music, allowing the music to flow over them and let go of the ‘trying to understand’. Reflecting back myself, this was exactly my own experience with the German, Slavonic, Tibetan and Aramaic examples I have given. There are more amazing things in the universe than are ever dreamt of in our philosophies……






                    (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!)


24. Prelude and Fugue in B minor from Book 1

Imagine being lost in a forest where there is no clear path through from one side to the other. Several different paths appear, at first glance looking much the same as each other. They go in different directions and you do not know which one to follow. You have a map but you cannot find the key to understand the symbols. This is like the first stages of learning one of the difficult Bach fugues. Seeing notes on the page but not hearing the music is like seeing all the paths in the forest but not seeing how they link up with each other.

Gradually through slow repetition more of the landmarks start to make sense – not just the main subject and countersubject but the way that they sound together. With more repetition you start to hear how three strands work together. It is like seeing how three different paths through the forest all start and finish in more or less the same place yet go on very different ly shaped journeys in between.

The satisfaction of learning a fugue is like the satisfaction of understanding connections – between people, places, emotions, physical sensations, abstract ideas. Countless descriptions of mystical experience across different cultures come back to the sense of an enhanced awareness of the connection between all things. To find this while playing a Bach fugue needs a lot of patient groundwork to be done – because you have to be so sure of all the notes first that you are no longer thinking about notes but are really immersed in the music.

Music is flowing – it is not in the dots on the page that represent isolated notes, but in the space between the dots. The space is where the sound flows, where the sounds join together, where the sense of solidity melts into an experience of fluidity.

Music does not inhabit the Newtonian universe that for the most part we imagine we live in. Rather, it inhabits the quantum universe where it is impossible to define time and position simultaneously. It inhabits the mystical universe where all things are connected without the need to see or understand all the pathways in a conventional way

Once you have learnt a fugue well you can enter the quantum mystical universe and enjoy the ever changing flowing connections that it brings to the ear’s attention. You have undertaken the journey from solidity to fluidity, and the vehicle that keeps you on the journey is that of mindfulness, a simple presence in the moment. No holding on, no holding back.

Take this back to the beginning.

Be mindful of the first steps in the forest, the first subject in the fugue.

Stay mindful during the practising process – 

Not trying

Not end-gaining

Just staying present





I WILL FIND THE FLOW                     (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!)


30 Prelude and Fugue in D minor from Book 2

For a lot of people on the piano the problem is not so much about playing the right notes as about letting go of the right notes. It may seem very obvious but it is always worth pointing out that it is impossible to repeat a note on the piano without letting go. While a note is being held down the hammer is not physically able to hit the string again and therefore no further sound can be made with that note until it has been released. If you learn this from a single note on the piano then you can apply it to every note. Let go - release - allow the hand to be free - move the hand to be ready for the NEXT note - allow the music to flow like a river. Sometimes it feels that the verbal content of a piano lesson is just a succession of cliches : E_GO - LET GO - LET GOD

Or more prosaically…… Once you have a note sounding, release your intention towards the NEXT note so that your hand can be ready to PLAY the next note and keep the music flowing forwards.

Or more mystically……. Allow each sound its space without interference from the ‘solid’ intention of ego so that the music can reveal the underlying divine flow which is always present.

In meditation, sound can be used as a mindfulness support, something which the conscious mind can use to bring back the attention to the present spaciousness. The breath can be used in a similar way, something which the mind focusses on as a tool for restoring a spacious awareness of the present moment. But sound seems to me particularly powerful in this regard because it is always changing. Becoming more aware of the soundscape of the present moment is a great discipline for learning the piano - and an excellent pre-practise ritual. For thirty seconds before playing a single note tune your attention in to whatever sounds are present both in the room and entering in from outside. You will then begin your practise with your ears open and receptive. In this state you are much more likely to remember to let go with your fingers to hear the flow of the music moving forwards. Remember - whether you are practising on your own in your own house or playing in front of a large audience - you need to be an attentive listener, tuned in like a radio receiving signals at the right frequency open to the new reality of the present moment Letting go of the notes physically is a strong metaphor, a reminder to let go mentally. When you have really taken this on board you will be able to let go of ‘wrong’ notes as well as ‘right’ notes and not allow ‘mistakes’ to get in the way of the present reality of the piece as it unfolds. (Connecting directly with this point I would highly recommend reading the book The perfect wrong note - Learning to trust your musical self by William Westney ) Playing the piano can then become a metaphor for life itself, a microcosm of how different our lives would be if we continually practise ‘letting go’.




I HEAR IT                         (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject)


31. Prelude and Fugue in E flat major from Book 2

To some people there is a natural connection between mathematical and musical ability; to others maths and music seem to occupy very different parts of the brain. To someone who struggles with music theory but has an ear that can take a song in at one hearing and reproduce it note for note the maths will probably seem quite irrelevant. But to a composer fascinated by numbers the riches of mathematics are as infinite as the series of prime or Fibonnaci numbers.

I remember being astonished when I suddenly realised in the sixth movement of Messiaen’s great Quartet for the End of Time – the unison movement – that the apparently random collection of note lengths were actually composed and presented as a set of perfect palindromes. 3 + 5 + 8 + 5 + 3,  4 + 3 + 7 + 3 + 4, 2 + 2 + 3 + 5 + 3 + 2 + 2 and so on. In a totally different context, I remember the excitement of understanding that the well known West African bell pattern, which can be symbolised * - * - ** -* -* -*  actually has the beat or pulse on every third note  *--*--*--*--. When you hear these two together, there is this wonderful sense of two different metres being heard simultaneously even though the whole pattern can be understood easily enough in Western terms as a repeating pattern of twelve fast semiquavers. Try it for yourself and see – tap the bell pattern with your right hand on right knee, and the pulse with left hand on left knee. It’s fun!

For explaining the real difference between 3/4 and 6/8 time – which is something a lot of amateur students of music find quite confusing – there is no better example than the opening of the song America from Bernstein’s Westside Story. One bar in 6/8 with 2 beats followed by one bar in 3/4 with three beats. Same duration, but totally different feel. It’s always a great feeling as a teacher when you see someone suddenly understanding this directly. This is not paper knowledge, but real musical knowledge.

Many mathematicians through the ages have devoted years and years of their lives to discovering proofs which only a tiny number of people in the world understand., But for the wider population, surely the more important thing than proof is fascination. And one of the groups of people most fascinated by numbers are composers. This was as true in the medieval world as it is in the contemporary world. It is as true in the world of Indian music as it is in the West. The link between pattern in number and pattern in sound is a deep one in the human experience. Maybe it is a way of connecting with our own physical reality, the changing pulse rate of our material existence.






GATE            TO   HEAVEN)                    (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!)


34. Prelude and Fugue in E minor from Book 2

There is no doubt that people approach the learning of music in many different ways. Listening to a recording several times over and then slowly working it out, phrase by phrase, on piano or guitar is a very different method from interpreting a complex set of visual symbols on a written page. And often people who are very good at the former are not at all good at the latter – and vice versa.

It took me a long time – and a lot of experience of teaching – to realise that the ability to read Western classical music easily is not in itself a musical skill at all. (I think it is has more in common with being good at algebra or playing bridge) Indeed it can be quite dispiriting to teach someone who reads all the notes and rhythms accurately but who has no feel for or even interest in the subtleties of dynamics, phrasing and articulation which make music come alive.

I often explain to pupils that there are three very different ways in which we learn music, and that ideally all three need to nurtured in parallel.

 First of all, we need to understand that music is in the sound itself, not in the symbols on the page. In that sense, the person who naturally learns music by copying what they hear has a head start over the person whose first way into music is from dots on a page. We will only produce the sounds – whether with our voice or on an instrument – that we can already hear internally. “Intention’ makes a huge difference to the sounds that we produce.

Secondly, we have to develop the physical coordination and precision to play a particular pattern of sounds. This can be very complex on the piano where several different notes are sounded together, and particularly in contrapuntal music like the Bach fugues where there are several different ‘horizontal’ pathways to coordinate at the same time as the ‘vertical’ need to voice chords so that some notes are stronger than others. The level of complexity can be quite overwhelming for the mind, but the physical body has a way of learning by gradually assimilating information and repeating the process over and over again. Small children do not ‘give up’ on learning to walk just because they keep falling over, but lots of people are prone to ‘give up’ on being better pianists because they don’t take enough ime to practise, to repeat a particular set of physical movements often enough and slowly enough for the body to assimilate what is needed.

Thirdly, learning music is made much easier by an openness to engage with understanding the structures involved in the composition. This may be as simple as understanding the alternating pattern of verse and chorus in a popular song. It may be as complex as unravelling a four or five part fugue. The important thing is not the level of complexity but the openness of the mind to engage with the process.

Of the three ways, the fhird seems the least important at the early stages of learning. Its importance increases in significance, however, as more musical progress is made.









TO MAKE THE MU-SIC       (Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!)