The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 14

A Stranger in a Strange Land

Of course, having a particular focus is absolutely necessary and good if we want to do anything specific or useful at all. However, if I wanted to have a richer experience of playing the cantabile theme at slower speeds, the imposition of my then current framework of expectations and interpretation needed to give way to something other. My ability to embrace this alien "other" in my performance of the adagio cantabile was facilitated by an unusual idea.

I have long been familiar with the perspective and practice principles of various understandings of meditation. I knew that all I had to do was to learn to let go of my preconceptions of the piece and focus with a more direct attentiveness. I designed an odd meditation for my playing of the adagio cantabile to explore that possibility. I imagined that a handbell choir made up of a group of Buddhist monks lived on the ends of my fingers. I imagined that the full attentiveness of these Buddhist meditation masters was intensely focused on every note of the adagio cantabile as I played.

For these fingertip dwelling Buddhist handbell enthusiasts, each note played was conducted through a lifetime of meditative discipline and was a manifestation of enlightenment. This off beat imagining, combined with my own meditation experience worked quickly to open my mind. I became able to walk right past my own expectations and preconceptions to pay full and direct attention to experiencing the musical performance of the moment. I opened myself up to an "other" in this music in a way that made a difference. My new Buddhist hands radically transformed my playing of the adagio cantabile and richly deepened my attentiveness to and experience of the cantabile theme at slower speeds.

For those of you expecting a story of how deeply beautiful my Buddhist hands interpretation was as a performance of Beethoven's music, I must now disappoint you. As soon as I started giving more of my attentiveness to the smiling Buddhist who lived on my fingertips than to my own learned expectations of the music, I began to commit all kinds of adagio cantabile blasphemies. This new style of attentiveness trashed all my previous understandings of the music except (for the most part) the actual order of notes. Who the hell is Beethoven? I had a group of handbell swinging Buddhist to contend with! One need not rise to the heights of a J. Evans Pritchard, of Dead Poet's Society fame, in their attachments to the academic formalities of interpreting the arts in order to wonder if my Buddhist Hands interpretation of the adagio cantabile could ever be anything but wrong. I can easily imagine that if Beethoven heard my Buddhist hands interpretation of his adagio cantabile, he would have cussed at me, thrown something at my head, and warned me never to play his music again.

Although portions of the Buddhist hands interpretation sounded interesting, it did not offer much in the way of an interpretation of the second movement of the Sonata Pathétique. What it did do was to bust my focus out of its prior imprisonment and allow me to experience my performance of this piece in a very fresh and fertile way. I could experience playing it with a much greater direct attention to the actual present moment of performance rather than attending to my frameworks of pre-existing expectations of performance. My Buddhist hands interpretation of the adagio cantabile helped me to ban my internal interpretive discourse, and allowed my raw attentiveness to this object of musical art to take the center stage in my performance.

This was a personal realization of Steiner's complete separation of the primary and secondary. I was able to create my own republic of the primary within my experience of the Buddhist hands interpretation that was separate from any external theory and had to do with my attentiveness to my own being in the performance act. The state of mind I achieved was very different from my normal academically structured 'piano self'. After some experience with this performance meditation, I realized that I needed to be able to apply my newly enriched attentiveness to the task of interpreting the adagio cantabile more in line with what Beethoven created. I do not mean to imply that the Buddhist hands interpretation did not have artistic value in its own right. It simply did not have anything to do with the artistic value that Beethoven intended. As important and necessary as it is for artistic performance to be capable of diverging expressions, I did have an interest in seeing if I could interpret Beethoven's musical creation.