Every morning, the great cellist and pianist Pablo Cassals would play two of the Prelude and Fugues for keyboard by Bach. He felt that it started his day with God, adding that “Bach wrote every piece to the glory of God.”
The pressure to practice and perform in the arts can be huge, and that stress can lead to some serious health concerns that musicians often ignore or hide. Cassals, who played well into his nineties, had an approach that quietly focused his day with a spiritual love that permeated his life, music and health, explained musician Nancy Sheeley, who is a pianist and teacher in Victoria, BC.
Sheeley feels that how we approach and focus on the tasks we have to do each day is important, and affects our outcomes. For example, in the 1980’s some techniques espoused both outside and within the music industry were influenced by Western views of accomplishment. The Jane Fonda’s fitness workouts told women “No pain. No gain.” Sheeley found herself unconsciously using that catchphrase in her practicing techniques, with the result that she experienced a serious injury from forcing her practicing and ignoring the discomfort.
Under the tutelage of a new teacher, Sheeley learned a whole new practice method and realized that she did not need to buy into this Western view of achievement in order to play the way she really wanted to. What she subsequently learned was a daily routine that was closer to Cassals, whose musicality still inspires her.
Sheeley’s new teacher encouraged an approach called “The Alexander Technique.” Along with the more “mindful” approach espoused by Alexander on how to sit, stand or play an instrument, she also embraced a fresh new prayerful perspective. As a result, she found her approach to playing – both in practice and performing – came from a natural and relaxed place within, bringing a healthier balance to her life and music, and brought permanent healing of her injury.
She also realized she needed to be more aware of the motive for her playing and teaching. “Expressing love in my teaching and performing is the motive for what I do,” Sheeley remarked. “I resonate the most with music that was written with a spiritual intent – such as Bach. And I recognize that the source of that love has a divine origin, rather than human. That is probably the central point of how I work.”
As a contrast to the way Cassals approached his music, she pointed to the sad story of the great 19th century pianist and composer, Robert Schumann. He suffered from deep insecurity about his piano-playing as his wife Clara’s greater musical ability flourished. Schumann’s anxieties led him to develop a painful exercise machine to strengthen his fourth finger, and he additionally practiced with weights on his fingers, focusing on these exercises for hours. Sadly, this led to permanent injury and lessened his ability to perform.
Thinking about these examples of Cassels and Schuman had me considering not just the motive behind what we do, but how we focus. Building confidence from a sense of loving what we do, can bring far greater results than focusing on our lack of abilities and our fear of failure.
Sheeley feels our society perpetuates a misguided culture of focusing on one thing to the exclusion of all else. While acknowledging that focusing is important, she has found it benefits her to sometimes set aside a difficult section of a piece of music and to focus on something else, but with the same motive of love. “I love to knit, write and walk. I learned to knit at a young age, and have always been fascinated by yarns and fabric textures. When I knit, it doesn’t mean I am not focused – I am focused in a different way. I find knitting helps me process my thoughts about the music I am playing, even if I am not thinking much about the music. Knitting is my meditation. Then when I come back to the piece, it is with a fresh view.”
Sheeley found that if she kept focusing on the problem she was having with a certain musical section – trying to force a resolution – it only made her more tense. When she turned her focus to another thing she loved, she found that a sense of love resolved the problem naturally. And with it, the unhealthy stress and tension left. For Sheeley, love is the focus of all that she does.
We don’t have to be a musician to understand that finding and focusing on our innate qualities with a spiritual love can bring confidence to our activities and better health to our lives. Just think what a sense of meaning, joy and vitality Cassals brought to millions, as well as to himself, through his practice of love.
This article was published in the Vancouver Sun HERE