Monday, July 15, 2019

In His Own Words: Educator and Pianist Forrest Kinney on Living, Dying, and Accepting

For decades (and in over 40 books and collections of musical compositions), Forrest Kinney has been teaching classical pianists to break away from the prison of the written notes and improvise our own paths.  Recently diagnosed with incurable blood cancer, Kinney shared these words with his friends on Facebook--once again teaching us to improvise, only this time courageously creating life in the face of death.  Here, in his own words, Forrest Kinney's beautiful formula for living, dying, and accepting:

After fracturing my back in February, I was not healing. So I went to the hospital in April. After being diagnosed with blood cancer, I decided to try chemotherapy. The day after I began, I suffered kidney failure and nearly died. (I will spare you the rather gruesome details!) So, I agreed to do dialysis and some transfusions. For weeks, I felt like a breathing corpse. The pain was, at times, hard to bear. The doctors said I would be on dialysis every other day for a year with no prospect of a cure. So, I made the extremely difficult decision to end all treatment and let nature run its course. After all, in trying to stay alive, I had taken a course that had killed all quality of life and had hastened my death. I finally accepted this.
So, three weeks ago, I moved to a beautiful hospice facility in Seattle to die in peace. And then something strange began to happen. The staff members here are all buoyant angels who embody the deeply compassionate side of humanity, the food is delicious and is restoring my strength and my desire to eat, and the pain medications actually work. Within a week, I began to feel so much better, and began to really enjoy all my visitors. I opened my laptop and began working on finishing a book. I began to learn to play an exquisite lap harp and experience the incredible beauty of making music again.
A few weeks ago, I thought I would be ashes by now, but I am living a surprisingly rich life, even though I’m in bed all day. In accepting that the treatments were not working for me, I allowed deeper treatments to begin to do their work. In letting myself die, I have been coming back to life. Because of the advanced stage of the cancer, I will still probably die soon, but I have experienced so much beauty and love at the end.
I wanted to assure you that this final act has been a time of comfort and joy. I also wanted to share what I have learned: when we accept “what is” and act accordingly, when we quit trying to force our lives to be what they are not, life can unfold in a shockingly beautiful way.

Thank you Forrest for teaching us that there's beauty and joy in everything, even in letting go.  May God bless you on your journey.  

Forrest Kinney is an educator who has taught music for over four decades.  He is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music (NCTM) as recognized by the Music Teacher's National Association (MTNA).  His goal it to help others become creative, whole musicians capable of enjoying the Four Arts of Music: improvising, arranging, composing, and interpreting. He is the author of 40 books and collections of musical compositions.  This includes the original Pattern Play series on musical improvisation, the newer Pattern Play series published by the Royal Conservatory of Music, and the newest Pattern Play-based series called Create First!.  He has also written two series on arranging: the new Puzzle Play series and the Chord Play series published by the Royal Conservatory of Music.  His book Creativity--Beyond Compare explores common misconceptions about creativity and artistic practice.  Music-Creativity-Joy  is a collection of 105 essays and article about teaching the Four Arts of Music.  His latest book is the Quick Chord Course, an introduction to playing the 32 most popular chords.  

To learn more about Forrest Kinney and to order copies of his publications and compositions, visit his website:

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

3 Must-Reads for Musicians Who Struggle With Self-Confidence

When I was a kid, I made up songs on the piano for the sheer pleasure of sound and the feel of the keys under my fingertips.  When I started formal lessons, I played for anyone and everyone.  It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I developed stage fright, and not until I finished my undergraduate degree that I accumulated some damaging experiences which challenged my confidence.

Music is a tough business, and even those of us who had supportive instructors have memories of guest teachers, master classes, or competitions that hurt us as players more than they helped. These books freed me of much of that damage.  Through reading them I learned two invaluable things: 1) I wasn’t the only one who had been damaged by poor coaching, and 2) healing was possible.  

A Soprano on Her Head by Eloise Ristad

Eloise Ristad deals here with complex problems which torment and cripple so many of our most creative and talented people, and she does so with compassion, wisdom, and wit. The problem of stage fright, for instance, is a suffering of epidemic proportions in our society, and involves modalities of thought and projections that rob spontaneity and enthusiasm in artistic performance.

Those interested in creative education have long felt that an entirely new, holistic and nurturing process of allowing individuals to discover and express themselves is needed if our educational system is to avoid the neuroses and creative blocks of the past generation. This book illuminates through its conversational style the destructive inhibitions, fears, and guilt experienced by all of us as we fail to break through to creativity.  A Soprano on Her Head supplies answers and methods for overcoming these universal psychological blocks--methods that have not only been proven in her own studio, but which trace back through history to the oldest and wisest systems of understanding the integration of mind and body. The work bears scrutiny both scientifically and holistically.

The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self by William Westney 

In this groundbreaking book, prize-winning pianist and noted educator William Westney helps readers rediscover their own path to the natural, transcendent fulfillment of making music. Teachers, professionals and students of any instrument, as well as parents and music lovers of all ages, will benefit from his unique and inspiring philosophy, expressed with clarity and immediacy. Award-winning author, William Westney, offers healthy alternatives for lifelong learning and suggests significant change in the way music is taught. For example, playing a wrong note can be constructive, useful, even enlightening. The energetic creator of the acclaimed Un-Master Class workshop also explores the special potential of group work, outlining the basics of his revelatory workshop that has transformed the music experience for participants the world over.

Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within by Kenny Werner.  

This is a book for any musician who finds themselves having reached a plateau in their development. Werner, a masterful jazz pianist in his own right, uses his own life story and experiences to explore the barriers to creativity and mastery of music, and in the 
process reveals that "Mastery is available to everyone," providing practical, detailed ways to move towards greater confidence and proficiency in any endeavor. While Werner is a musician, the concepts presented are for every profession or life-style where there is a need for free-flowing, effortless thinking. Book also includes an audio CD of meditations narrated by Kenny to help the musician reach a place of relaxed focus.

All of these books are available on

Monday, July 1, 2019

In the Worst of Times: Playing the Piano When Your Life Falls Apart

There are times when the sun is shining, the house is empty, the piano beckons, and music pours out of the fingers like breathing.  This article isn’t about those times.  This is about practicing through days when the diagnosis just got worse, when the divorce papers arrived, when a loved one slides further and further into illness—physical or mental.  In other words, this is about practicing the piano when life is falling apart.  

It’s ironic that the times we need the solace of music the most are frequently the times we find it most difficult to drag ourselves to the piano bench and play. The struggle isn’t theoretical.  One pianist friend of mine is battling pancreatic cancer.  Another just endured a messy, nightmare-inducing divorce.  In my own life, I’m watching helplessly as a close family member is succumbing to several forms of mental illness, the most serious of which is dementia.  I know from experience that placing my hands on the keys is only the beginning of the battle; the bigger struggle is learning how to hang on to the lifeline of the notes in the middle of an emotional hurricane.  

Here are some ways I’ve found solace at the piano on dark days.  

Acknowledge that things have changed and set new goals.  Major life upheavals change us  What may have seemed like a good goal in the past may not be the best plan when life is unpredictable.  It’s time to ease up.  If there’s no energy to pursue certain ambitious plans, postpone them.  Most of us don’t do our best playing when our attention and energy is drained.  Relax.  Let it go.  Use practice time to nourish and sooth rather than push toward a big goal. Set a new goal—one made with gentleness and flexibility.  For example, my friend who has cancer is planning to play for a couple of events this summer.  Both are low pressure situations.  She is performing repertoire that she loves and knows well.  Goals give immediate motivation.  They give hope.  Even if the goal is to play the piece for a friend, it’s a glimmer of light in what can feel like hopeless darkness.  

Play music that speaks to you right now.  I love playing tangos.  I was planning to record a fistful of them.  And then a few months ago, my loved one fell apart.  I soon learned that no matter how much I tried to discipline myself to stick with my beloved tangos, they were no longer speaking to me.  I’m now  playing music that pulls me out of the emotional storm and brings me gently back home to myself.  How do I know which pieces are right for me during this time?  When I’m done practicing them (regardless of how badly the practice time went) I walk away from the piano feeling rinsed of darkness and grounded in something bigger than myself.  

Chase beauty.  Whether it’s the perfection of a musical phrase, the feel of the keys under fingers, the way the light spills across the piano, or even the sound of birds outside the widow, beauty is healing and it is everywhere.  When we’re happy and relaxed, it comes to us.  When we’re grieving or struggling, sometimes we need to stop, breathe, and look for it.  Finding these moments of beauty reminds us there’s hope--a whole world of it!--outside the maelstrom of our own thoughts.  

Be gentle. Get enough sleep and exercise.  Eat nourishing, healthy foods.  Slow down however and wherever possible.  While at the piano, appreciate every little bit of progress. Screw up (at the piano or in life)? Forgive yourself and move on.  Anger and frustration reach a boiling point (again, at the piano or in life)? Feel it, and let it go.  Tragedy usually causes people to respond by choosing one of two things:  bitterness or compassion.  It’s up to us to choose compassion—especially during the times when we feel least compassionate.  

Finding a path through the unthinkable is a deeply personal journey--one without a map or a guide.  Some days are better than others.  But time is teaching me this: all days are made infinitely richer by the piano—a “friend” who absorbs pain, sings with joy, and ultimately reconnects us with hope and with the center of ourselves.