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5 Pianists Who Are Also Political Activists

Triggered by experiences with wildlife as a Peace Corps volunteer, Susette became an earth-friendly activist, while also working full time.

To be a great pianist, you have to play and compose with passion.

To be a great pianist, you have to play and compose with passion.

Passion in Piano and Activism

I've been a political activist nearly all my adult life. I'm 61 now and have enough knowledge of piano and music composition to know that I could learn to play and even compose, if I applied myself fully. My father was a piano player and so is my current love. From them (and others) I've learned that to be really good, you have to play and compose with passion. To be great, you must translate your feelings through your fingers. Your fingers become tools for emotional expression.

"Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul."

— Wassily Kandinsky, Russian painter

I am not alone in my desire to translate political passion into music. How many masters have done just that? How many of those riffs that we hear at concerts came from the fingers of masters playing what they heard or felt around them? How many translated their dreams into sounds? How many took the themes of nature and played them through their hands? How many constructed their soundtracks to reflect revolutions? Here are five political activists who were/are also pianists.

Political Activist Pianists and Keyboardists

  1. Ron Kovic
  2. Fela Kuti
  3. Serj Tankian
  4. Margie Adam
  5. Ben Treuhaft

1. Ron Kovic

Ron Kovic was an anti-war peace activist in the 1970s who was paralyzed in Vietnam. From his wheelchair, he led the veterans' anti-war movement in the United States and was arrested 12 times. He now lives peacefully at home in Redondo Beach, California, writing, painting, and playing piano.

"No one will ever again be my enemy, no matter how hard they try to frighten and intimidate me. No government will ever teach me to hate another human being."

— Ron Kovic

2. Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti was a Nigerian civil rights activist, who pioneered Afrobeat music in the 1960s and '70s. He was repeatedly arrested and beaten for writing lyrics that criticized the Nigerian government.

"To be spiritual is not by praying and going to church. Spiritualism is the understanding of the universe, so that it can be a better place to live in."

— Fela Kuti

3. Serj Tankian

Serj Tankian is an Armenian activist based in the United States and 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.

"Pretending that we live doesn't make us alive."

— Serj Tankian

4. Margie Adam

Margie Adam is a feminist activist, well known for her life-long involvement in progressive issues, who 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."

"Letting others define us kept us apart

now that we’re together, let us begin demanding the things

that give us the wings to fly – to fly – to fly"

— Margie Adam, "Sweet Friend of Mine"

5. Ben Treuhaft

Ben Treuhaft, son of the Mitford sisters, is a piano tuner and player who defied the embargo against Cuba in the 1990s. After exposure to the musical talents of young Cubans, he organized secret shipments of used pianos from the U.S. to Cuba.

"I've been running my 'Send a Piana to Havana' programme for 18 months now and taken 35 pianos and $3,500-worth of parts, mostly bass strings, from the States to Cuba. Whether people want to play Beethoven or boogie, I don't mind. As a piano nut, I just want them to have the chance to learn and to enjoy playing."

— Ben Truehaft

Music Connects Us to Others

The other morning, at a church service, 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. My fingers would play as the sound expands, forming a framework on which to create more.

I wondered, what would it be like to learn the moves of masters, to train my fingers to expand their skills, so that I could play in front of others and connect them to their feelings? I wondered 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 to them on the side, to pull them in closer to the group, until they felt like they belonged. (I wonder if that would work with activists?)

I imagine my piece starting out disjointed. The crowd would slowly find its center as I would mine. As my hands mimic the crowd on the keys, and as I blend the outliers 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 together.

What would it be like to find my feelings and play them out with my hands? My hands and the piano could be my voice. Just as I sometimes hear intriguing and wonderful sounds come from my throat when I sing bird songs, 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?

How Not to Write Musical Compositions

The first composition I ever wrote was for a music theory class. I wrote it mechanically, analytically, in response to the lesson formulas and with reluctance, my voice inside crying, "This is not how you write music!" I tried it once again, years later, and that was better, but still not what I was reaching for.

If I had a piano and the time, money, and privacy, I would just let my fingers play what I hear, losing myself in the sounds and the feelings of the life around me as it flows through the keys. I would play my activism to the masses.

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 do exist and, if we really wanted to, we could be one of them . . . but maybe I'll be a drummer, instead.

Drums are much easier to move than pianos. They can be carried anywhere.

Drums are much easier to move than pianos. They can be carried anywhere.

Dame Joan Sutherland

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.


Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on March 26, 2013:

LOL - I wish. No, I've never been to that part of the world. I live in the US and my travels tend me toward 3rd world countries. Thanks for asking, though.

Tony Mead from Yorkshire on March 17, 2013:


I knew a lady in Sowerby bridge Yorkshire that played piano with a passion. Was it you? it is years back and you do look very similar to the lady in question. Sorry if I am wrong.



Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on March 11, 2012:

Thanks Steph. Right now I'm focusing on singing, which is every bit as pleasurable. But someday . . . when I have one . . .. :-)

Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on March 11, 2012:

I played the piano for years and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am teaching a couple of my kids beginning piano lessons. It is such a wonderful skill to learn. Sounds like you definitely have the key (no pun intended) to passionately playing the piano. All the best, Steph

Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on February 17, 2012:

I taught piano for a short while during high school. I was still close enough to childhood myself to remember that kids learn best when it's fun. So I gave my students a variety of things to do, to relieve the boredom of Hannon exercises, including playing dual chopsticks with me. Years later I ran into one of my "parents" who said her child refused the teacher she got after me when they moved, but still loves to play the piano. That's what I wanted.

Kymberly Fergusson from Germany on February 10, 2012:

As a child, a discouraging piano teacher would always tell me I did something wrong (playing by ear, improvising, in composition). I learnt to play technical well, but lacked passion. After I stopped lessons and exams, and just played for myself (for stress relief), the emotions came through. I still can not improvise or compose, but my ear has returned. Maybe with time and practice the other skills will surface again as well.

Krystal from Los Angeles on February 07, 2012:

Music is an art and art is passionate. I believe art can become stale and lose value when it is rigid. I enjoyed reading your experience about finding your voice (in piano that is). Voting up and AWESOME!

Phoebe Pike on February 04, 2012:

Grace is one of those truly blessed musicians that could make everyone sigh with her sweet melodies.

Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on February 04, 2012:

I love that description of your sister. Reminds me of a saxophonist I heard once in college. He was young, but had the ear and the passion. You could feel how he loved playing sax. I've heard much more skilled saxophonists since then that were not nearly as interesting to listen to.

Phoebe Pike on February 03, 2012:

I have always loved the piano, but I have never had the ear for it. I could always listen, but my playing has always been lacking in something. Despite my efforts, I am by no means an artist when it comes to music. My sister, Grace, now she is a musician! To hear her play her clarinet you would believe the world around you was melting away and only her and the music was left. She was extremely talented. She stopped playing after high school, but she recently started up again. She truly is a musical genius.