Walking the Music

1. Zen in the Art of Lute Playing
Cultivating the Flower. Zeami on lute playing.
Lute Recipes by Dōgen.
Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing.
The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music
Zen in the Art of Listening
Walking the music
One Moment of Music
The Kōan of Playing Lute
To Play Lute is to Play Lute
11. Bach, Weiss and Nō
12. Instruments in their natural environment
13. It’s Zen to be HIP

This is part seven in a series of lute lessons inspired by the teachings of Zen. Here I try to establish a school of lutedō: the Way of the Lute. For this lesson I will take a small detour to Tai Chi.

For about one year now I am a student of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is a form of physical exercise focussing on health, meditation and self-defence. It is believed to have originated in either Taoist or Buddhist monasteries in China. As part of its training Tai Chi has a series of slow movements, strung together in what is called a set. In Tai Chi, one ‘walks the set’. There are some interesting observations to make concerning walking a Tai Chi set that can be applied to playing a piece of music. These observations fit in with our lutedō, the way of the lute.

If we compare a Tai Chi set to a piece of music we can see some similarities. Both have a beginning and an end with an uninterrupted flow in the middle. The Tai Chi set I practice has 108 movements. There are individual movements that occur more than once in the set, and series of movements that always appear together in the same order. This is the same in a piece of music, where there are repeats of whole sections, and where many melodic phrases, harmonic sequences and fingerings will occur more than once. For both we have to maintain the flow of the whole while getting all the details right at the same time. And finally, both have an underlying technique that can be practiced in basic exercises apart from its context. I think it’s interesting to look at the similarities between walking a Tai Chi set and playing a piece of music a little more in detail, and then to look at the way the Tai Chi set is practiced and see what we can learn from this for our lutedō.

We begin the set with a moment of rest and also end with rest. The rest at the beginning is used to empty the mind, let go of all thoughts and to become receptive to the flow of the set once we start. At the end of the set we have another moment of rest, this time to make sure we follow the set to its end and not stop our focus too early. Likewise, music should start in silence and end in silence. Beginning with silence will empty the mind so it can be receptive to the music, and at the end the silence is used to let the music come to rest before we stop going along with its flow. If we forget the silence at the start of our playing we will not be concentrated. Instead we will need the first few measures to bring our focus to the music we are playing. These will be a lost first few measures. So, make sure you give yourself and your audience a good start by observing a moment of silence before you start your piece. If we do not observe the silence at the end of the piece, we run the risk of filling our minds with distracting thoughts before the music has stopped, so take your time at the end. The silence before and after the music is silence in our minds. Usually our minds are filled with many thoughts, some we follow and some we ignore, some are bothering us and others can be pleasing. Creating silence in your mind is not following the thoughts that pop up in your mind. You cannot stop thoughts from forming in your mind, but you can stop following them. In Zen this is called ‘opening the hand of thought’. The image used is of a hand that, instead of grabbing a thought when it enters the mind, opens itself and lets go of that thought. We can train ourselves in letting go of the thoughts that pop up in our minds by meditation. In Tai Chi one of the training methods for meditation is to preserve the rest after the set for a longer period, say 20 minutes. All we do is stand still after walking a set, experiencing an empty mind by not following the thoughts that enter our minds. In music we can think of the great performers who are completely focussed on the music they are playing. They do not follow any other thoughts that enter their minds but stay focussed on the flow of the music. That is something to strive for.

The set is walked like a ritual; the order and execution of the individual movements is done without thinking about them. The result is a natural flow, adapting to the moment, and adapting to the body and to the mind of the person who is walking the set. It is fair to say that the set is walking us. In the same way we should not be concerned with the details in our piece of music when we are playing. Instead we should let the music carry us along, naturally adapting tempo, dynamics and expression to our mood and our senses. Trying to correct individual movements within the set will stop the flow of the whole set, just like trying to correct details like notes, ornaments or fingerings while playing a piece of music will stop the natural flow of the music. The essence of the story unfolding in the music and the essence of what we want to express to our audience is not in the details like notes, ornaments or fingerings. Instead, the essence is in the flow of the piece. Being aware of the flow of the music instead of trying to control the details will help in telling the story of the music. So also in playing music we can say that instead of us playing music we can say that the music should play us. There is another way of looking at this. We could say that the controlling, logically thinking musician should be out of the way as he will obstruct the flow of the music. All the audience will hear is the player making sure he’s playing everything correctly. Then the story in the music will be lost and the audience will be merely watching a test in skills. How boring for the audience! But if I want to be the conduit for passing on the story of the music to the audience, I should be as little as possible in the way. Walking the music like a ritual, without trying to control the details is the way to accomplish this.

How do we accomplish walking a Tai Chi set without getting all the details wrong? Especially with all those illogical repeats! And there are so many details to think about in Tai Chi, it really is like playing a complicated piece of music all by heart. It might look natural and easy to an outsider, but I know it is really hard to get all the details right when walking a Tai Chi set. Let’s look at the Tai Chi training to see how this is accomplished. My Tai Chi classes consist of three parts: practicing the basic body postures and techniques that you’ll need for the movements within the set, practicing the movements of the set and finally walking the set. Again, I will look at these three parts in detail.

If we break down the individual movements of a Tai Chi set, we can recognise a handful of basic techniques like turning your hands, stretching your arms, turning your hips, a sitting down motion in the hips and correctly placing your feet along imaginary lines on the floor. These techniques are practiced extensively and in detail in a few basic exercises at the beginning of each class. Transferring this to our lutedō means that we should start our practice sessions with basic exercises. I can name a few like plucking strings with fingers and thumb focussing on relaxation and tone production, or walking with the left hand over the strings on the fingerboard, focussing on feeling the pressure of the fingers, stretching the hand without tension, cleanly placing chords and having a relaxed and correct posture. I am sure you can think of a few more basic exercises that you like to do. These are perfect for warming up as well as for learning to control your instrument. Spend a good portion of your practice sessions on these basic exercises.

Next comes practicing the piece. And just as in my Tai Chi class, not by playing the piece from beginning to end, mistakes and all, but by breaking the piece down in smaller parts. Practice the small sections with attention to details like fingering, timing, technical smoothness, etc. Basically make sure you can play each small section to perfection. Don’t worry about how it will fit in the whole, just concentrate on getting that one measure to perfection, or that one phrase, or that harmonic sequence with all those difficult chords. Spend a little time on each part of the piece that needs improvement, don’t waste time on parts you already can play and make sure to put lots of time in the parts where you have most difficulties. If you find these difficulties are the result of an insufficient basic technique, make sure to spend more time on that part of the technique in the first section of your study session. You might want to make a new basic technique exercise for yourself, or adapt an existing exercise just to help you with this technique.

The third part of your practice session is playing the whole piece without bothering about technique and without bothering about details. If either is not yet perfect, you can work on those in your next practise sessions. Now is the time to walk the music: let yourself be taken along in the flow of the music and enjoy playing your piece. Let go of what you studied and you’ll find that what you practiced today might be not yet apparent in your playing, but what you practiced last week might have become part of your playing by now. Over time you’ll find yourself improving in a very solid way: you’ll have a good basic technique you can rely upon, you’ll know all the details in your pieces to perfection and, finally, you’ll be able to forget about all these details and let the music take you along; you’ll be able to walk the music.

David van Ooijen