Updated: Jun 8, 2018
The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” -Carl Jung
I am in the profession of playing. The word used to describe the act of instrumental music making, play, is a curious one. As in English, the French jouer and the German spielen are used in both senses of “playing a game of hopscotch” and “playing the piano.” Playing seemingly connotes an act that is easy, natural, and pleasurable.
Musicians would smile ironically at that thought. Is the Liszt Sonata easy? Is it natural to practice three, four, five, six hours a day from the age of six to sixty-six? Is it pleasurable to be utterly crushed every time a concert goes badly? So, why is this word, play, used to describe what musicians do?
We often see children at play – piling up blocks, filling up buckets with sand, pumping their legs on the swings. At that moment of play, their minds and hearts are totally absorbed in what they are doing, completely unconcerned of whether what they are doing means or is worth anything. Focused on what is happening in the now, children at play exist wholly in the moment. They are lost in the joy of earnest play.
The world is a playground for the child and all activity a form of play because it is in play that the child comes to know oneself and the world. But this innate capacity for play that we see in children often diminishes with age. We gradually begin to lose our capacity for surprise or wonder, slowly draw back from adventure, and grow wary of taking chances. And gradually, too, our capacity to live joyously in the moment and to make new discoveries about ourselves and the world diminishes.
For a musician, time is a blank canvas onto which one paints with the paintbrush of musical sounds. This free play of the mind, the song of the soul, can come only after total mastery of the technique (the Greek word techne means art). When one listens to a recording of Ignaz Friedman’s Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words, or his Chopin Mazukas, or the Op. 55 no. 2 Nocturne, we hear playing that is beyond notes or rhythm. The Mendelssohn is the fresh breeze of eternal youth, the Chopin talks to us with musical poetry. This is craftsmanship of the highest level, freedom with confidence, creative play.
This creative play is what the Sanskrit word lîla describes. It is translated into English as play, but lîla has a deeper resonance than the English word – lîla describes, in the words of violinist, writer, and teacher, Stephen Nachmanovitch, a “divine play, the play of creation, destruction, and re-creation, the folding and unfolding of the cosmos. Lîla, free and deep, is both the delight and enjoyment of this moment, and the play of God. It also means love.” This play is a spiritual, holy act that unifies the soul with the essential forces of the universe.
As musicians grow older and learn about the ways of the world with its rules, however, the mundane aspects of daily life, such as practicing, the need to earn a living, or trying to please the audience (or the judges, or the teacher, or the parents) can deaden this “divine creativity.” The play instinct dulls, and in some cases, disappears altogether. It is the fortunate person who can protect this child-like capacity for joyous play.
Several years ago, I went to the old Japanese town of A to perform a recital. The organizer of the event was a grumpy but amiable gallery owner and potter, Mr. W, who had a weakness for good kara-kuchi extra dry sake. We got along marvelously (he made it his duty to instill in me a real taste for high-quality kara-kuchi). After dinner on the night before the concert, as Mr. W wished me well for the concert, I bowed and said, “ganbari-masu.” This basically means “I will do my best,” but in literal translation, the word ganbaru implies persistence, insistence, and struggle. Mr. W knotted his already wrinkly brows and spat out, “You know, I don’t like the word, ganbaru. Don’t struggle. You can’t do anything well when you struggle. Just enjoy.” Those words have remained in my mind. Struggling is an ever-inward action, whereas enjoyment is an outward, creative one, transforming all encounters into opportunities for discovery and growth.
Why do I play the piano? Not for the glamour (the only pretty part of music-making is on the concert stage the rest is a combination of sweat, tears, and back pains). Surely not for the money (this is so painful a myth that I don’t want to write about it any further).
I play the piano for no reason at all, save the pleasure I get from working on a new piece, making my mental concept of something perfect, ideal, as real as I can at that moment. When I was learning Liszt’s “Norma” Fantasy, I went to school at 6 a.m. every morning for weeks to practice, with the faith that eventually eventually I will be able to play this glorious work at least somewhat well. Waking up in the morning was a joy, and the pain that came along with the process — the constant struggle with certain passages, the numerous public humiliations — seemed insignificant, secondary.
I play the piano for those rare visionary moments of rightness: when I can enter into a piece and am free to — and able to — do whatever I please in my playing, when the piece, myself, and the audience fuse and become a whole. The description by the late pianist, William Kapell, of the limitations of another pianist, as well as the purpose of music making, approaches the qualities of Zen:
“He has no deep-seated fear of inadequacy in the face of sublime thoughts, no frustration at perhaps not having wings to give these heavenly pages flight. If he had such fears of limitation in front of great genius, perhaps then he would be a great artist. Maybe that is the true humility. To feel you can’t fulfill the songs and dances of the great, and to be happy as a child when a stroke of lightning hits you, and you find yourself floating on the wing of a butterfly, and find yourself deep in the current of a Schuberitan or a Mozartiean, or a Chopinesque stream of beauty. To be happy as a child! Because when that hits, that is the reason we ever studied music.
Because when it is there we are blessed, and when it is not there, we only exist as unhappily as an artist. .. I am nervous and apprehensive because I may not “have it” that particular night. Because I feel the piece bigger than me, so big I may never be able to even get through it, let alone be the master… I think greatness in art is something you come upon, after only yearning and pain, and a deep sense of being in the tunnel. Greatness in art is not something you tell yourself you have. It is the oasis, the greatness, the vision, or whatever you want to call it, after traveling the vast desert of lonely and parched feelings. After this, the oasis. And the older a musician gets who has once seen this oasis, the more he wants to live there all the time, so the more frequent are his attainments of greatness and vision.”
This oasis is the divine playground. It is so easy, so natural, and so pleasurable to frolic there, but it is limited to only the ones who have mastered the art of play.