Activism & Playing the Piano With Passion
I've been a political activist nearly all my adult life. I'm 61 now and have enough knowledge of piano and reading music to know that I could learn to play well, and maybe compose too, if I applied myself fully. My father was a piano player and so is my current love. I've learned that to be really good, to play with passion and compose with passion, it takes translating your feelings through your hands.
At a church service this morning I started wondering what it would be like to just sit down at the piano every day and play. Just play. Just let my fingers roam over the keys until I find sounds that intrigue me and then capture them and move around them and come back to capture them again and let them go. Then find them again in lower notes until the upper notes get jealous and snatch them back, creating for a moment a tug of war between upper and lower, playing and expanding to form a framework within which to create more.
Dame Joan Sutherland, in an interview on YouTube before she died in 2010, said that she learned how to sing trills by copying the sounds of birds in her backyard. In the video above you can hear some of those trills and high notes.
Playing Feelings with the Piano
What would it be like to find my feelings and play them out in my hands? My hand and the piano could be my voice. Just as I sometimes hear intriguing and wonderful sounds come from my throat when I play with bird songs so, too, I imagine magical sounds coming from my fingers when I let them play feelings. Could I play the sounds of street vendors? Of picketers chanting? Of birds singing, like my voice?
And what would it be like to learn the moves of masters, only to train my fingers - to expand their skills - so that I could play in front of others their feelings? I wonder if, at the piano, I could listen for the feeling of a crowd at its center, create that as a main theme, then look for those not tuned in yet and play them as the side, to pull them in closer to the goup until they belong. (I wonder if that would work with activists?)
I imagine it starting as a disjointed piece in a disjointed crowd, that then finds its center as I find mine in it. As my hands mimic it on the keys and as I blend the outlyers into the theme, my music could be a healing force, even as the music would not really be mine when I play the feelings of others, but would be ours.
Flight of the Bumblebee, played by Maksim
Piano Masters Playing Feelings
And how many Masters have done just that? How many of those riffs we hear at concerts came from the fingers of Masters playing what they heard or felt around them? How many took a dream to translate into sound and embellish? How many took the sounds of birds or bees, or the ocean, or of a voice crying to add to the basic theme a feel of nature?
The first composition I ever wrote was for a music theory class. It was mechanical, written in response to the lessons and with reluctance, my voice inside crying, "This is not how you write music!" I tried it once again years later for myself and that was better, but I would like to try it this way. If I had the piano and the time and the money and the privacy, I would try it this way - to let my fingers play, to lose myself in the sounds and the feel of the life around me flowing through the keys.
Wladyslaw Szpilman was a promising Polish composer and pianist who narrowly escaped being sent to an extermination camp with his family during World War II. After being saved by a German officer, he became a holocaust political activist.This is a Polanski film that was nominated for 7 Academy Awards.
Political Activist Pianists
I would not be alone. Here are five political activists who were/are also pianists.
- Ron Kovic - an anti-war peace activist in the '70s was paralyzed in VietNam. From his wheelchair, he led the veterans anti-war movement in the U.S. and was arrested 12 times. He now lives peacefully at home in Redondo Beach, California, writing, painting, and playing piano.
- Fela Kuti - a Nigerian civil rights activist, pioneered Afrobeat music in the '60s and '70s. He was repeatedly arrested and beaten for writing lyrics that criticized the Nigerian government.
- Serj Tankia - an Armenian activist based in the United States, was the lead singer and keyboardist for System of a Down, founded in 1994 before he went solo. He is known for protesting terrorism in all of its forms, including the Armenian genocide.
- Margie Adam - a feminist activist, well known for her life-long involvement in progressive issues, pioneered a special brand of pop-jazz piano solo music. Margie said, "Avalon is for those of us who continue to believe in the possibility of compassion and justice and who cup this flame with our hearts and hands."
- Ben Truehaft - son of the Mitford sisters, is a piano tuner and player who defied the embargo against Cuba in the '90s. After exposure to the musical talents of young Cubans, he organized secret shipments of used pianos from the U.S. to Cuba.
The only trouble with becoming a political activist pianist like the exemplars above is that a piano is hard to move. My form of activism requires travelling, especially to third world countries, and living overseas for a few years - like with the Peace Corps.
Luckily, those of us with good imaginations can gain satisfaction from knowing that political activist piano players exist and we could be one of them, if we really wanted to. Maybe I'll be a drummer, instead.
Other Activist Articles
Sustainable Sue has been an activist for over 30 years. She comes from a family of musicians and teachers. You can find more of her articles by clicking on her name in the top righthand corner. Thank you for reading.