The art of authentic communication and listening
PETER KATER is a Grammy Award-winning musician and author, who also conducts musical, healing and creative retreats in beautiful natural settings. Here he talks with MEGHANA ANAND about communicating feelings and ideas through music.
Q: Hi Peter. What does music mean to you? How did your journey begin?
PK: Music for me is a way to communicate feelings and ideas that are not easily put into words. When I was a child I didn’t really want to be a musician; my mother made me take piano lessons. But after 10 or 12 years I started to enjoy it. I found that it was very soothing and healing for me to play for myself. I did a lot of improvising even when I was a teenager, and I started writing my own songs also when I was pretty young. But I really played for myself. Sure it was cool in high school, but after I was out on my own I was really mostly doing it for myself. Other people always encouraged me to play publicly, and I would wonder, “Really, you think I should play in this place?” And they would say, “Yes, yes, you should do it.” So I would. One thing just led to another. I always had my own unique style – it’s good to be yourself.
Honestly, I now enjoy it more than ever. After all these years I’m starting to come into the fullness of myself, and express that musically in a way that is more complete. I am now talking about the creative process. The creative process is a process of self-acceptance and it’s a process of compassion, spontaneity, listening very closely and deeply to yourself, and to what you hear and feel. There is no censoring.
Music is a very interesting path. In my opinion, it’s a very spiritual path.
Q: You play music for the healing arts. Can you elaborate on that?
PK: I was always into the healing arts, meaning I personally always loved any kind of healing process, any kind of organic bodywork, whether it was massage or something deeper. I have always enjoyed therapy of different kinds, but as far as my music being healing, I never tried to play healing music. I never tried to affect anyone in a way that would be healing. All I have tried to do is show up authentically.
There’s a saying that I love (I don’t know who coined it): “Authenticity heals.” If we are authentic, where we are, at any given moment, and transparent in a way that’s genuine, authentic, it heals us and all of a sudden we change. It’s like taking something from the dark and shining light on it. If we say, “Oh, I’m feeling frustrated,” or “I’m feeling grief,” or “I’m feeling angry,” or “I’m feeling nervous” – whatever the truth is about that moment – if we can express that in a real way then it’s transformative.
So when I play the piano, I just want to tell the truth. I just want to express what’s really true for me in that moment, and when I express that then I feel differently. Then I have to express what’s true for me in the next moment, what’s true for me now and now and now and now. That becomes a natural unraveling process that I could never orchestrate with my mind. It just organically wells up. And if I allow it to flow, it takes me to some place where I need to go, but I don’t really or necessarily plan that. Does that make sense?
Q: Absolutely. I totally relate to that. You started your career in music playing jazz, which was contemporary and mainstream. So how did the transition happen into the healing arts? Did you face any challenges, internally and externally?
PK: Well, I went through a period of only improvising for about 6 years, between the ages of 18 and 24. Then I had the opportunity to make an album, and so I decided to compose the songs for the album, because I wanted to be able to play songs from it. And I released my first album called Spirit. It was very close to home; it was very much me. It was a solo piano album.
The album did well, but I received some criticism from other musicians around saying, “Oh, he doesn’t really know how to play jazz. He doesn’t know how to do this,” and I felt challenged. So in my next album I incorporated other musicians, some jazz, and I started writing melodies that were catchy and commercial. And that record charted in the USA in the top 20 of National Airplay Contemporary Jazz charts.
I thought, “Well, that was pretty easy!” So for the next few records I wrote more and more contemporary jazz songs, almost just to prove that I could do it if I wanted to. And I had several top 10 records in a row, but I was really not that happy with it. I would play at jazz festivals and I would feel, “This is not working. This doesn’t feel like me.”
One day I heard a cassette by R. Carlos Nakai, who is a Native American flautist. The Native American flute is so beautiful, so soulful, simple and earthy. So I started playing along with it on the piano. And I thought, “Well, this sounds great,” the piano and the flute. So I contacted him to see about doing a project together. I thought it was just going to be a little aside, just a simple project that I would enjoy for myself. I didn’t really think anyone would care about it. And to my surprise when the record came out – the first album was called Natives – it became very popular, selling 5 to 10 times as many as my contemporary jazz albums. And it felt more authentically me than the jazz stuff.
So that gave me a big permission to be more myself, and to stop trying to be someone else. The direction went back to where I started, with my spirit, back inside, being who I am, naturally. Working with Carlos was an invitation to do that.
Q: How do you overcome the challenges and biases that you may face trying to be yourself, while following your heart’s pursuit?
PK: I almost feel that sometimes the world is like a distraction and misleading, when we focus on the outside. We have to be in the world and we have to participate, but I think we need to take our direction from inside. And we can find it in ourselves. It takes time, but we all have this inner voice that is always questioning: “Is that the right thing?” When you have an idea and you’re excited about it, but then you start to doubt, the mind is talking.
When I speak with musicians I respect, we all agree that it’s that first thought, that initial spark of an idea, that is the true idea. And all the thoughts that come after that – wondering, second-guessing, doubting – is the mind. That’s the world coming in and undermining our natural essence, our natural intuition. So when I’m playing or improvising, I’m always saying yes. I get an idea, and I say yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes. I find that when I start second-guessing myself, I feel like I go off the path. So for me playing the piano is about not thinking. It is almost like meditating, you know, very spontaneous. I used to meditate a lot many years ago. I was very, very disciplined. I would fast a lot, I would chant, and I would do all these things to quiet my mind. But I find now that playing the piano is the most honest and true thing I can possibly do, because really it’s in the music that my mind is completely quiet and I’m just being. I’m listening and being. And the more I do that, the better I feel in my daily life as well. It kind of bleeds into my life.
Q: Peter, you have played and worked with some very big names in the industry, like John Denver, Dan Fogelberg and now with Carlos Nakai. How has the experience been?
PK: Beautiful! I was a big John Denver and Dan Fogelberg fan when I was younger. So working with them was really sweet. But I have to say that playing with R. Carlos Nakai and Dominic Miller, who is Sting’s guitarist, and Tina Guo, who is a fantastic cellist, and Snatam Kaur, who is a beautiful vocalist, is where I really found this connection, because none of us really want to discuss or rehearse the music. We want to find a way to just be present with each other and really listen to each other. The musicians who have been doing it for a long time realize that creativity is not about doing something; it’s about listening, being very open and very receptive. It’s letting creativity flow, rather than thinking that we need to do something to create it. Creation and creativity are everywhere. This Earth is the ultimate manifestation of creativity. We live in creativity. So from my perspective, the way to be a part of that creativity is to be very receptive and listen deeply. And not judge, and not question. You know what I’m saying?
Q: Yes. It’s wonderful.
PK: And also breathing. I do a lot of Internet performances where I talk with the audience quite a bit, and people ask me, “What are you doing? What are you thinking when you’re playing the piano?” And my response, that first thing is, “Don’t think.” The second thing is, “Am I breathing? And where in my body am I breathing? Where can I breathe into? Where in my body is it tight so I can relax? Is my stomach, my abdomen relaxed?” Those are very important things, because if we’re tight, if we’re not breathing, and if we’re in our head, then we’re stuck. So that’s important to me. And you know what I like to do? I like people to lie under the piano while I’m playing!
Q: Really? Okay.
PK: Yes! No matter where I’m playing – at a home concert or on stage – I invite people to come up and lie under the piano. I feel them under there, and I breathe into it. I connect with them and then I improvise just for them. I transfer the energy – them to me, me to them – circulating the energy. And people have beautiful experiences.
Q: That’s very interesting. Do you often do that with your son also?
PK: For my son, listening to my music is like breathing, as he’s heard it all his life. He doesn’t need to go under the piano; it’s actually part of him. He’s actually a very talented guitarist. He is only 14 years old, but he is becoming a very good guitarist.
Q: How did you feel winning the Grammy in 2017?
PK: Well, it was very exciting. It was especially interesting because that was my 13th nomination! I had not won the previous 12 years, so when I did win it was actually quite shocking and very exhilarating. To be honest, I did have a premonition. And it was the first year that I also took my son to the Grammy’s, because he was old enough to go and appreciate. It was great. I have to admit that winning the Grammy gave me the sense of even more permission to be myself. Even though I had worked through a lot of the need or desire to prove something to someone, I think winning the Grammy was the stamp or the proof of what I believe in. Now I play even more from the heart, even more exploring and trying new things, just letting it go.
Q: So what next for Peter Kater?
PK: You know what I really love doing? It’s the retreats. They are so much fun, and people have such great experiences. They’re very intimate. There are usually 10 to 20 people per retreat. We spend a week together in a beautiful place, either in Hawaii or in Montana. All needs are taken care of, like food, massage, and being in nature, in a beautiful setting. And every day I play the piano for them for at least an hour, sometimes two hours. I invite guest musicians to come at night. We do little exercises in being present and authentic. I talk a lot about what happens when we show up with ourselves, being really present with ourselves and with someone else, and removing the sense of inhibition or the feeling that we can’t be authentic. We create a very safe space where people can take a risk and say, “This is who I am,” and embrace themselves and show who they are to the others at the retreat. It’s not heavy. It’s not serious. But it’s very free and very loving, and within a day or two people are having an amazing time. After a week people feel like they’ve made life-long friends, and no one wants to leave! I started doing these retreats during the last year or two, and I love them. You really get to know everyone. People experience a lot of feelings, a lot of things come up, and – I don’t like to use the word too much – a lot of ‘healing’ does happen even though no one is trying to make it happen. It happens on its own. When we’re authentic and genuine and transparent, healing happens by itself.
Q: Last question. What is the significance of listening in your life, especially in your field of music?
PK: It’s everything. Listening is one of the most important things we can learn how to do: listen to ourselves, listen to nature, listen to each other, listen to our hearts, listen to what our bodies are doing – all that stuff. We get so wrapped up in doing: Doing, doing, doing, and not being. And that’s basically what we try to do in the retreats. We focus on just being and listening, and getting out of our heads. Listening is the main ingredient in creating music. People think they have to try to be creative or they have to have creative ideas and thoughts. I don’t believe that. I really think that if we are quiet enough, to where we can actually open up and listen to what’s already going on, then things will just happen. I can never make myself play the piano if I don’t want to. I love being in nature. For me being in nature is the easiest place to open up and be present.
Q: It’s been wonderful talking to you, Peter, and I really want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us.
PK: You’re so welcome. Thank you for reaching out.
in the presence of Trees.
Where the Earth beckons a deeper listen
As it draws you down into its peace.
Join me… on the edge
of the known and unfamiliar.
In the company of intimate strangers.
Join me… for an eternal moment
Within the eye of spiraling time.
As we reclaim what we’ve lost.
Join me… in loving emancipation
In blinding night and blinding light.
To awaken once more and again.
Interview by MEGHANA ANAND
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