Qigong for Pianists
by Joan Benson
Piano and Keyboard; September/October, 1998
On a bitterly cold December day I was scheduled to record a disk of Fanny Mendelssohn’s music on an exquisite 19th-century piano at the Schubert Club in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although I looked forward to the opportunity, I felt edgy, my bursitis bothered me, and my body seemed a bundle of nerves. Playing to a bunch of microphones in an empty room always makes me feel that way; I much prefer a live audience.
That morning I was late. I rushed along the snow-covered sidewalk, clutching my wind-frozen hands. Suddenly, I slipped on a sheet of ice and fell forward like a bird in flight. I lay there in agony, my limp right arm loose in its socket. I cradled it like a Raggedy Ann doll.
My upper arm turned out to be badly broken. Needless to say, I missed my recording date. After my initial recovery, my frustration mounted – my arm still felt weak, my bursitis had not abated, and my nerves were still ragged. So I decided to take a break from playing and go to a Catholic retreat center – a nunnery, actually – for some reflection and a little peace and quiet. There I made a discovery that would affect not only my piano playing, but my whole life. I happened upon a room filled with silver-haired, elderly nuns of all shapes and sizes, dressed in jump suits, swaying gently in graceful patterns. They looked positively beatific.
“What is going on?” I whispered.
“Qigong,” a nun responded., “It might help your arm, you know.” I nodded. I made a mental note to look into it when I got home.
I figured I had nothing to lose, so when I returned to Oregon I found the best qigong teacher available and began my studies. It didn’t take long before I regained strength and flexibility in my arm. As wonderful side benefits, my bursitis went away, and I learned to relax before a microphone. Qigong is, I’ve decided, a pianist’s dream come true.
The Meaning of Qigong
Qigong, for the West, is a whole new approach to healing. According to the ancient Chinese practice, “qi” (pronounced “chee”) means life force or the vital energy that flows through our bodies. “Gong” implies dedicated practice, a concept every pianist understands. Letha Hadady, D.Ac., in her book Asian Health Secrets, defines qi as the invisible energy that keeps the heart working, the lungs breathing, and the kidneys filtering blood. The best way to understand the concept of qi is to think about your own body. For example, do you get butterflies in your stomach before a performance? That’s stuck qi. Do your muscles in your arms or shoulders tense up when you sit down to play? Stuck qi. Do you ever get a lump in your throat when you feel angry or nervous? You guessed it, stuck qi.
The many sets of qigong postures look like a beautiful, underwater dance. Forbidden in China during the Communist Cultural Revolution, qigong is now practiced daily by millions of Chinese, often at sunrise in city parks. Americans have begun to embrace its methods, too, over the last ten years, as more qigong masters come to this country to teach.
Why this current trend in the West? Above all, qigong counteracts the neurosis of our time: the stress of faster and faster pacing – jumping from airplane to airplane without ever seeming to arrive – the endless array of machines and electronics that tend to numb all sensitivity. It’s an antidote to the wired “café latte” way we go through our daily lives.
The Basic Qigong Stance
In contrast, close your eyes and imagine the initial qigong stance. Stand like a tall pine tree, with your feet forming roots into the earth. Your spine remains erect but not rigid, while your neck and shoulder muscles gently drift downward. The body is the tree trunk, through which sap can move freely, and the arms turn into flexible branches, with your elbows, wrists, and fingers completely free. The crown of your head, light as a tree-top, reaches up toward the sky.
In this traditional pose, the qi energy resides in the lower “dan tien,” just below the navel. From there it moves through one’s whole being. Aware, tranquil, warm with vitality, one is filled with the supple essence of life. I later discovered that I could easily practice this stance anywhere – even in a crowded airport – without anyone noticing. Just doing this much helps me silence the noisy confusion we all encounter in our modern world.
This stance is only the beginning. Once you feel comfortable with it, you may proceed to other gestures and forms. It is, of course, beneficial to study with a qigong master, especially at the beginning, to make sure you’re breathing correctly and understanding the intricate details of the poses and gestures. However, the photos here will give you a general idea of what qigong is like.
The Benefits of a Qigong Practice
For the last four years I’ve made a qigong a regular part of my routine – practicing a minimum of 20 minutes a day – working with various teachers. I continue to experience improvements that affect me both as a pianist and a person.
It didn’t take too long before I felt the tension dissolve and my body become more elastic. At the keyboard, I find I no longer tighten my neck, shoulders, elbows, or wrists, or clamp down on my jaw. As a result of liberating my body’s vital energy, not only do my fingers and hands stay warm and more flexible, but I have more strength and stamina when I play. I don’t even have to depend on coffee and chocolate anymore to get me through a concert!
Overall, I think qigong has heightened my awareness of and sensitivity to the things around me. Because I’ve learned to dispel the tension and anxiety that have plagued me in daily life and as a performer, I sleep better, my digestion has improved (especially on the road), and all my senses have come alive.
Qigong affects my emotions in general. I have learned to keep a more quiet center and not react so immediately to external pressures or fear. Since my mind is clearer, my body and emotions feel more open, rather than tight and contracted. As a pianist, I trust myself to play even more spontaneously and to delve into deeper levels of musical understanding. I feel a growing empathy for the audience, and I’m learning to give more as an integrated, balanced human being.
Today there are over 1,000 different qigong methods and a growing number of excellent masters in America. So, how does a pianist choose a qigong teacher and a suitable form of practice? With the same diligence he or she would employ in selecting a piano teacher or choosing an instrument on which to play.
The Importance of a Teacher
Although the motions of qigong are simple enough for anyone to do, studying with a teacher provides the fine-tuning and the understanding you need to get the most out of your practice, much like working with a piano master. I turned to Hui Zian Chen, a qigong professor at Portland’s Oriental College of Medicine. As a leading exponent of Soaring Crane qigong (described [below]), she is totally immersed in teaching her students. Since I’ve taken courses with her over the past four years and even attended monthly meetings for post-graduates of the course that she holds in her home, I feel comfortable going to her for advice, concerning my practice. After all, the intention of qigong is not only to increase your physical health and vitality, but to help you grow spiritually and enhance your global awareness.
As in music, it is wise to stay with one qigong teacher instead of leaping from instructor to instructor. As her students progress, however, Professor Chen encourages them to experience other Chinese masters. Sometimes she sponsors their trip to Portland, and each year she takes a small group of students with her to China. Her intention, she says, is to free us from any one form so we can be our own true selves.
Once I went to California’s Esalen Institute for a week of study with Chungliang Al Huang, a Tao master, philosopher, and exquisite dancer. Director of the Lang Ting Institute in the sacred mountains of China, Master Huang encouraged us to embrace the artistry of qi gong by creating our own gestures inspired by the coastline of Big Sur.
I’ve also taken several private sessions with a yearly visitor from China, Master Qingyu Wang. This brilliant man is known for his powerful, healing qi. After an apprenticeship with some of China’s most profound old masters, he went on to heal Olympic stars as well as Thailand’s royalty. I felt particularly privileged when he placed his hands above my body and touched pressure points to stimulate my own energy. This technique of sending qi to strengthen a weaker person is an important aspect of qigong and not unlike what a pianist gives to students and audiences through the medium of the keyboard.
Last autumn, Professor Chen advised me to add Essence Qigong to my Soaring Crane qigong practice. She sponsored its originator, Master Fu-Yin Chen (no relation to Professor Chen) on his first trip from China to America. Master Chen spent several months in Portland teaching Essence Qigong. This powerful form, practiced with eyes closed, is both more meditative and more spontaneous than Soaring Crane. It encourages qi to circulate internally, transforming the body and soul. Essence Qigong and Soaring Crane seem to complement each other since the latter tends more toward the external world.
Qigong and the Art of Piano Playing
When I spoke to Master Chen last December we agreed that amateur and professional pianists gain focus and equanimity through qigong. I asked him to talk more about music as a whole and piano playing in particular and how qigong can help. I told him I felt that the public hears more canned music than live performances. Thus they often settle for a “CD outlook” that seeks to repeat a work always the same way. This freezes rather than frees, playing. It emphasizes technique and note perfection, speed and amplified sounds, often at the expense of pianissimos and subtle pauses and effects.
Master Chen focuses on the internal feelings of the pianist, looking for the “soul” or true “essence” of a player. He believes that this essence must be developed in order to succeed. It’s up to the performer not only to educate his or her listeners but to awaken their inner depths as well. If the performer only seeks to impress by going faster or playing louder, however, the essence of the music is lost and the audience is deprived of true music.
Master Chen believes that our age desperately needs profound musicians who, through their deep understanding, can influence the whole world. He says they can bring an awareness to the delicate variations found in the simplicity of nature, for each sound is like a unique leaf, that changes in the wind from second to second. By being sensitive to the moment rather than applying rigid patterns and conventions, one discovers music’s subtlest meaning.
Master Chen says that practicing Essence Qigong opens up the qi of one’s soul. As this qi expands outward, it affects gestures in endless, unexpected ways. This exchange between the external and the internal creates a spontaneous dance of life.
I told Master Chen about my beloved piano teacher, the famous Edwin Fischer:
I recalled our last meeting when Fischer was too old and ill to give concerts anymore. I visited him in the spa at Baden-Baden where he was taking a “water cure.” As I entered his suite, I found him drooping sadly on a chair behind the door. This dear, warm man had given his life to music and shared it with deep generosity. Now his audience – and his relationship with the world – had neared the end.
Master Chen understood. “When one reaches the peak as an artist,” he explained, “one must come down. And when an artist turns physically old, both he and others who see him feel sad. Through qigong, however, one can work towards a higher spiritual peak that knows no descent. It’s quite easy. One only has to practice… One may get older superficially, on the surface, but life inside becomes younger and younger.”
“So, qigong gives us a practice through which we can keep growing as long as we live?” I asked.
“You are right,” Master Chen replied. “Don’t worry about age. As long as you have the heart to do it, you will have the joy of progress every day.”
I smiled as I remembered the silver-haired, elderly nuns, and their open faces, and silently thanked them for setting me along the path.
Soaring Crane Qigong
Professor Chen’s own teacher, Master Jin-Xiang Zhao, based his Soaring Crane sequence on old Chinese methods. He introduced it to the Chinese people in 1979 and since then, it has attracted over 20 million practitioners. Since ancient times the crane has been considered a companion to the God of Longevity. As early as 550 B.C., a princely sage sought eternal life in its motions. In more recent centuries, this bird has become a qigong symbol of balance and awareness. Resting on one leg for hours, the crane appears to be sleeping, but if a fish should happen by, the bird will quickly swoop to catch it. Relaxation turns into action filled with qi.
Soaring Crane has five basic routines that are beautifully slow and easy. Although the intricate details of these routines require a teacher, here is a description of three movements. Grounded in basic qigong stance (see page 51) the practitioner holds the qi like a ball in her hands, and slowly brings it toward her center. The hands approach the abdomen and, for a moment, stay poised about six inches from it. Photo 2 shows the arms imitating the flapping of a crane’s wings in flight. The arms spread apart, then dip and fold. In photo 3, while balancing on one leg, the practitioner lifts her other leg, pointing the toe downward. She then lowers her whole body until, for a moment, the toe barely touches the ground. “Imagine yourself as a crane dipping the end of your wings in a body of water,” Professor Chen instructs. “This is the feeling and vision you need.”
“Qigong for Pianists”
by Joan Benson
Piano and Keyboard; September/October, 1998
Copyright Joan Benson, 2005; all rights reserved