Learning the piano

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

Looking back, some of the best spiritual direction I have received was from piano teachers. At secondary school my teacher was William Varcoe (who wrote for The Tablet and led Prayer for the Day on the Home Service). It was he who gave me my first books on prayer to read – Teilhard de Chardin’s Hymn to the Universe, and Von Hugel’s Spiritual Letters. He would stop me in a left-hand exercise and read me a poem by Donne. He was quite mad, but inspirational.

My piano playing did not improve very much, but the horizon of the spiritual life and my vocabulary of prayer was stretched and enriched. As a teenager he was a godsend. He took my soul seriously and shared his own experience. He would tell me what happened when he prayed. He made prayer real, exciting, dynamic and full of beauty.

At present a German lady teaches me. She began by tackling my posture, and the way I held my hands. She has made me breathe properly whilst I play – something I was unable to do. My former teacher gave me a diet of modern romantics. My present teacher has had me playing Bach for months. The lessons exhaust me and she has shown me how to prepare for playing and how to relax my hands after playing.

At this stage of life – middle age – it has been so fruitful to return to basics, to root out lazy habits of mind and body. She has taught me that my whole person is caught up in the process of playing. She opens up Bach’s spiritual vocabulary to me and reflects on the genius of his inventiveness. She finds pieces to express my mood and answer my desire. The piano lesson is space to explore my experience and my difficulties.

I do not think dear William would be very helpful to me now, and if I had Dorothée as a teacher at school I would have given up. We need different people to minister to us at different stages of life. A spiritual director has no right to be possessive about his directees. In fact it is very important to recognize when the time has come to part company.

As with so many things in the spiritual life it is important to monitor the changing patterns of life and respond to them. It may be possible to ‘keep’ the same spiritual director for years, but even in the case of a fruitful relationship it is important to keep things under review. Inevitably relationships change and develop and this can stifle a good working relationship with a spiritual director.

It is important to recognise that a spiritual director cannot be all things to all men. The main resource of a director is his own experience. Sometimes that is helpful, sometimes it isn’t. Nothing should be taken for granted and prayer must always cover the suitability of a spiritual director. In the end it is all God’s providence.

Learning to pray is like learning the piano. There are some very good self-taught pianists! Most people, however, need guidance. But a teacher who can see what is lacking in practical terms is as important as a teacher who can explain how the music should be phrased, or wrestle with the interpretation of a piece. God is good and if we ask him he will give us the right person at the right time.