Gwhyneth Chen: The Spirituality Of Music
Posted by Tejas Doshi on Dec 6, 2014
Born into a family without any musical inclinations, Gwhyneth Chen realized music as her life purpose at the age of five. As serendipity would have it, after school one day she saw her kindergarten teacher playing the piano. Out of curiosity, Gwhyneth asked her teacher if she could play. As soon as her tiny fingers touched the keys, she knew what she wanted to do with her life.
She was only a child, but the stillness that she felt when playing the piano inspired Gwhyneth to practice four to five hours a day, while resisting the temptation to have fun with her school friends. This dedication at such a young age blossomed into a musical genius that is transformational for any listener that is among her audience.
On Saturday’s Global Awakin Call, we felt especially privileged to be in conversation with Gwhyneth and learn about her life journey, where music and spirituality are one and the same.
In her world, music is pure only when it touches people's souls. To achieve this level of connection to her listeners, Gwhyneth has made a choice to live her life as if she is on a spiritual journey, cultivating internally.
“I do two kinds of charity work, fundraising concerts and another kind is spiritual charity and that’s contributing transformation through music. To do this, your spiritual level has to be very high. To get there, I have to take off a lot of external layers from everyday life. I cannot have too much information in my head; I have to let it all go so there is not too much affliction. I have to let the worldly self go so that there is only the soul left in the music”
Unlike a few of her contemporaries, Gwhyneth plays during her concerts with her eyes closed. “It lets me listen to my music with my soul,” she says. This is integral in her ability to connect with the soul of her audience and once that is achieved, even the reluctant person walks out with tears in his eyes.
Delving deeper, Gwhyneth beautifully described a few divine movements on stage when everything around her became zero and pure music is all that remained. These are rare moments when listeners feel choked, having connected with their emotions, and tears roll down their eyes. This is the time when the artist, instrument, the audience, and even time melt into a certain kind of void and what remains is the music at its purest form.
“This is the most satisfying moment of life and each time this happens, I find myself closer to the purpose of my life.”
Life Choices, Sacrifice, and Devotion to the Practice
Through the years, Gwhyneth has performed mostly as a solo artist. In her view, any musician who wishes to positively influence her audience needs to have a strong internal, intangible energy that seeds out of spirituality. Gwhyneth cultivates her spirituality through life choices rooted in discipline and devotion. She chooses to surround herself with less people, she chooses to have less social diversions, and she chooses to live a simple and quiet life. These choices reserve her energy and allow her to channel it into the practice of music and nothing else.
“If you live an exciting lifestyle, you come onto stage with a lot of noise and have to keep pealing and pealing all the layers off while you’re onstage playing. By the time you’re done pealing, the concert is over and it’s too late.”
Cultivation and stillness through spirituality come with sacrifices, but from Gwhyneth’s perspective, this the only way she knows how to be. She is one of those rare souls who have been on a journey of detanglement from the material life. “The more you have, the more afflictions you have”, she expresses.
In fact, Gwhyneth does not even own a car. She lives a monkish lifestyle where she meditates and trains for as long as seven to eight hours a day even after all these years. The level of stillness that she feels allows her to masterfully play the compositions of Bach. “He is the most difficult to play and perform because his music is so simple and pure”, she says.
The Price of Everything, the Value of Nothing
It is this thought process from her formative years as a musician that made Gwhyneth give away an astounding sum of prize money of $130,000 back in 1993. At the age of 23, she played as a youngest contestant at a competition against very established, senior pianists, some who had been among the jury in Gwhyneth’s previous competitions. With no intention of winning and only seeking the experience to play against the greats, Gwhyneth played her heart out.
Upon winning the prize money, it did not take her a fraction of a moment in deciding over what she wanted to do with that money. She donated the entire sum to Master Hua from the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas.
“That money was not for me. I gave it all away so that I wouldn’t have to think about it. Money is just another external thing, and the more you have, the more afflictions you have.”
Amidst the chaotic euphoria of opinions and advice from friends and family to use the money for herself, Gwhyneth chose to make an investment that has earned her returns in multiple folds over the years. As a listener when you hear Gwyneth talk about this choice, you are almost able to hear the smile on her face. But that choice must not have been so easy.
“It’s not easy doing anything good in life. In this day and age, I realize more and more that the false becomes true and the truth becomes lost.”
After giving away the prize, Gwhyneth received an even bigger prize. She was offered the opportunity to learn from the teacher of the founder of the competition. The founder was the great pianist Ivo Pogorelich and his teacher had never taken any students other than Ivo. Then he took a second student and that was Gwhyneth.
“It wasn’t a student-teacher relationship; it was master-disciple kind of relationship. I experienced what high level musicianship was. Practicing piano became like practicing as a Buddhist monk. I was trained in a very strict way and my teacher watched me practice everyday, close to 10-12 hours a day. That was training that money couldn’t buy. This is an example of what Oscar Wilde says, “We know the price of everything but the value of nothing.” That was value and the $130,000 was just a token.”
During the course of our conversation, Gwhyneth shared something quite interesting that she is looking forward to. She aspires to write a book that describes the practice of piano and her practice of Chi-Gong as spiritual practices.
“I call it piano kung-fu. Chi is energy but it’s also movement and a lot piano playing is also movement. The greatest form of art is bringing the two extremes together. It’s always that balance between stillness and movement.”