Music

Classical pianist RIOPY says anyone can learn to play this anxiety-busting tune in less than an hour. Does it work?

This Mental Health Awareness Week, chart-topping pianist RIOPY has created a new work to help soothe anxiety. He says anyone can learn it in an hour or so...

Pianist RIOPY has created a new work for Mental Health Awareness Week to help people cope with anxiety

Pianist RIOPY has created a new work for Mental Health Awareness Week to help people cope with anxiety. Photo: supplied

“I wanted to make sure it was something simple,” says Anglo-French classical pianist RIOPY, down the line from Paris (via London). “Something repetitive enough to get your mind in this kind of hypnosis state. It’s like how people do little mantras or the way Sufis turn in circles for hours to put themselves into a trance. You focus your mind on one task – those two notes.” RIOPY, probably one of the most in-demand classical musicians in the world, is talking to me over Zoom so that I – a humble bass player in a punk band with a cheap midi keyboard plugged into his Mac, and who absolutely can’t play the piano for toffee – can learn those two notes and the mindfulness technique/elegant musical piece he calls Meditation 111. It’s part of a project commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, for Mental Health Awareness Week, which begins on May 15 and this year focuses on anxiety.

Meditation 111 is a super-simple piano figure which its composer reckons anyone can learn to play in under an hour, using two or three fingers. The left hand plays the two notes that create the “musical mantra” while the right picks out a little melody parsed from Claud Debussy’s Clair de Lune and then wanders off, if so inclined, into its own improvisations.

In theory, anyone can learn to play it. “Every time I meet someone who says they can’t do it, I always tell them ‘no, you can’” says RIOPY. “You just concentrate on those two notes.”

The music becomes a mindfulness exercise, one that, like visualisations or mantras, involves fixating on a simple, repetitive idea – the two notes played by the left hand. You can become lost in those two notes, rocking back and forth between C and D. Once the rhythm becomes instinctive then your right hand can play the melody. It’s an incredibly effective technique… calming and satisfying and absolutely accessible.

Healing through music is a big deal for RIOPY. Born Jean-Philippe Rio-Py (RIOPY is a stage name), he was raised in a secular cult in rural France, where he remained well into his teens. Cult members were cut off from the outside world, family ties were severed and children were routinely beaten. Music was banned. One day the young Jean-Philippe found an abandoned piano. It changed his life.

“That’s what saved me in the first place,” he says. “From my depression, my anxiety, my suicidal thoughts. I had pain here every single day of my life.” Here he clutches his hands to his chest, “but when I was making music, it was like I was on a quest. You go to another place; your mind is in this beautiful environment of peace. Of love.”

He taught himself to play, and though he went on to study music formally, helped by a succession of people who appreciated his abilities (including Chris Martin, who gifted him a piano of his own), his initial relationship with the instrument was instinctive and improvisational. He had been deprived of any music to listen to, and so had learned to compose his own and found peace in the state of mind he entered when he did so. Decades later, now a hugely successful composer whose albums spend months on the Billboard Classical Top 10, and who has racked up over 700 million streams, he still meditates through music.

He developed Meditation 111, adapted from his own piece, Essence of Light, at the request of the Mental Health Foundation, to help others tackle their anxiety in the same way.  It had to be super easy. “For as many people as possible to be able to play that piece of music, we need to go back to the essence of what music is,” he says.

“If you do it every day, you get better. It’s the same thing if you meditate, and it’s the same thing with mental health. Every day you get better. Other people can help, but it’s you that needs to do it.”

He’s right. And he’s right about Meditation 111 – it really is super easy to learn. Once I’d got my mind into those two notes, I genuinely was able to lose myself in improvisation. Ham-fisted, one-finger improvisations admittedly, but little melodies all the same. The experience was, as intended, mindful, calming and refreshing. Whether you take that as the starting point to learn more piano or simply use it as a daily exercise to help focus your mind is up to you. I’ve already decided I’m going to try to learn the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness (because I am nothing if not a painfully obvious 90s cliché). I’ve, more or less, nailed the first 30 seconds already.

Meditation 111 is a wonderful place to start, and it’s a journey, as RIOPY himself found, that can take you anywhere. “The left hand is the foundation of the house,” RIOPY explains. “And then you do the interior design with the right one.” And then? “And then you can improvise. You could make a road. You could do anything you want.”

The Meditation 111 music video, with free sheet music download and video tutorials to guide those wishing to learn by ear, is available at riopymusic.com.

Read more about Mental Health Awareness Week, including more advice on coping with anxiety, here.

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