Wabi-Sabi in Piano

A SoundCloud friend, Peter Vorländer, (cis minor) introduced me to the concept of Wabi-Sabi the other day. He gave me just enough information to send me searching the web reading everything I could find on this topic. Here is his wonderful explanation….

Short about Wabi-Sabi: its a concept that values imperfection. For example many things become more beautiful when they become older, think of a piece of wood or the patina of a metal tea can. Thats Wabi-Sabi. There is a very compelling story of Ryuki, a famous japanese person. When he was young he decided that he wants to follow the path of learning to master the tea zeremony. He went to an old master and applied. The master told him: “I want to see if you are the right person to learn this. So hear you see my garden, its pretty disordered, please clean it up”. So for the full day young Ryuki was working in the garden and cleaning up everything with perfection, always secretly observed by the old master. At the evening he was finished. Everything was tidy. Ryuki stepped back and looked to the clean garden. But he had the impression, that something is wrong. He went to a cherry blossom tree, shaked it a little and three little cherry blossom leaves fall down on the cleaned path. Thereafter he was pleased. The old master who had observed this knew, that Ryuki will become great master of Wabi Sabi… And actually he became. So this is Wabi-Sabi … three little cherry blossom leaves on a cleaned pathway. Considered as imperfection with a western point of view, considered as highest perfection in Japanese culture of Wabi-Sabi. And I think the same applies for music…we need to strive for Wabi-Sabi, not for cold technical perfection. Once you start viewing the world with the eyes of Wabi-Sabi you will discover beauty almost everywhere … and so much pleasure comes from this!

In addition to getting back to the piano, another of my ongoing goals has been to de-clutter and lead a more Minimalist Lifestyle. As I look around my house and choose what will stay and what will go, I’m drawn to three or four possessions – an old blanket chest I purchased for $35 which was refinished by my father, my cracked majolica plates, a large yellow vase with hand-painted flowers, and a little green paint-splattered work table from my grandfather. These are the  pieces that have followed me from house to house, city to city, over the years. I can’t bring myself to put them out for a yard sale or donate them to charity yet.  These represent Wabi-Sabi to me. Imperfect. Natural. And a little sad.

I took time over the past few days to watch Marcel Theroux‘s documentary “In Search of Wabi-Sabi” and I’ve learned that Wabi-Sabi can be summed up in three sentences. Nothing is perfect. Nothing lasts. Nothing is finished.

Perhaps this “Go Play Project” has a touch of “Wabi-Sabi.” After all, the performances are not perfect, the recording process is as simple and as natural as it can get, and the pieces are all WIP’s (works in progress). They will never be complete as long as I find more to listen to and more subtleties to refine.

Could it also be that the pieces themselves summon the spirit of Wabi-Sabi and that is what makes a piece like Chopin’s Nocturne in c# minor speak to so many – musicians and non-musicians alike? The Rachmaninoff Etude Op 33 no 2 is a piece I’ve worked on only in the winter. Does that particular piece evoke  sense of the impending “death” that comes in winter? Are we drawn to certain composers and pieces in the same way we’re drawn to certain comfort foods, pieces of furniture and art, and nature settings?

Using Failure to find Focus

Failure is a word that hasn’t popped up too much in my vocabulary recently except maybe for some baking and sewing projects and even some frustrating experiences with my minimal computer skills. However over the past few weeks the word failure has appeared in some unexpected contexts.

In late December I stumbled upon the new online documentary on YahooTV called Failure Club. Morgan Spurlock and Philip Kiracofe  have based the series on the premise that the less afraid of failure you are, the more you can achieve.

“What were those things that you dreamed of?” Kiracofe asks. “In most cases, what’s stopping you is all the rational reasons why that’ll never work, ‘I don’t have that experience,’ ‘I don’t have the connections,’ etc.”

(Referring to the show’s participants,) Kiracofe adds, “The essence of that is they’re learning, ‘Wow, there’s no real downside to failure. Failure is actually good.'” (read more)

Well, that was the first eye-opener. Fear of success? Fear of failure? I started taking a hard look at my piano teaching and my piano playing and the time and energy I spent on each. What was it that really kept me at the piano bench for all those years? The dream of teaching 40 kids a week or the love of the music? Well, then what was keeping me from playing? Especially in this age where anything goes? Oh, sure. There were three kids at home, two homes bought and sold, four or five moves, the restaurant pianist job, the business of owning a music studio, grant-writing, the blogging. But I had already put in my 10,000 hours. It shouldn’t be that difficult to sit down and play the piano for one hour a day. Was it really the fear of failure that was holding me back?

The next time the word failure showed up was in the context of  writing. Here Pulitzer prize winning author, Jennifer Egan, talks about failure.

Failure. It’s such an ugly word, isn’t it? It reeks of cancer, of loss: the sense that what once went wrong cannot be set right, that the world has come to an end, that failures are failures forever — that it’s not just the project that failed, but you. Successful people, we imagine, are somehow blessed with more optimism, bigger brains and higher ideals than the rest of us.

But it’s not true. Successful people — creative people — fail every day, just like everybody else. Except they don’t view failure as a verdict. They view it as an opportunity. Indeed, it’s failure that paves the way for creativity. (read more)

So, I took these mentions of failure as a sign and took the plunge. I’ve created a SoundCloud account where I will post one new homemade recording every Sunday evening of the music I love. No, I’m not composing or improvising. I’m simply interpreting some of what I feel are the most beautiful piano works. Some are pieces I’ve performed long ago. Others I’m learning as I go along. (This week’s piece is Chopin’s Nocturne Op 9 No 1.) I’m hoping by the end of the year to be able to look back at these early recordings and see growth and improvement. In the meantime, the goal for 2012 is just to go play and present my best at the end of every week.

And yes, I’m still teaching. But my focus is now on the music!