Renara Akhoundova

There was blood all over the piano.

After two hours of nonstop playing, my fingers were bleeding. People who noticed the red stains on the white keys of the piano thought that someone had spilled the red wine being served at the celebration. It wasn’t wine. It was my own blood.

It was July 2004 – before I recorded my first album. And I had just made one of the best decisions of my life – the decision to attend a self-development workshop on Nonviolent Communication with Marshall B. Rosenberg. On that night when I spilled my own blood onto the keys of that cheap piano, I had no idea that my life was about to change dramatically.

I came to Strasbourg that July in a dreadful state. My fears and shame, together with my ignorance about real communication, had created in my life a series of traumas from which I was finding it hard to recover. I did have one thing going for me. I had always strived for more in life. And I was not satisfied with my current state. 

My move to Paris after my graduation from Moscow State University put me in a vulnerable position. I was an immigrant. Besides a short stint back in Russia as an oil trader (that’s another story) I made my living by playing the piano in a Greek restaurant. My employer took advantage of my vulnerable position and manipulated the situation to withhold money and time off I was entitled to under French law. But the real problem was that I was cut off from myself. I didn’t know how to go deep within and connect. My inability to stand up for myself against the restaurant owner was just a reflection of my inability to communicate with myself and those around me.

Like a Handkerchief Dangling From a Cloud in the Cosmic Wind

At that time I felt like I was a handkerchief dangling from a cloud in the cosmic wind. I “couldn’t afford” to go to that workshop in Strasbourg. But I went anyway.

Now, why did I play the piano for two hours that night? And why did I bleed all over the instrument? I played because we were celebrating Marshall’s upcoming 70th birthday, since he would not be back in Europe before October. This workshop, where I was introduced to Nonviolent Communication, had been a huge revelation to me. I was in a state of deep gratitude and I contributed in the only way I knew how – by making the music for the others to enjoy during the party. My fingers bled because I hadn’t played the piano much at all since the problems with my job at the restaurant came to a head and ended in a lawsuit.

But the real miracle took place the next day. It was my birthday, July 11th. You see, my history with the piano had been both beautiful and tragic. I first touched the piano at the age of 3, and at 5 I began formal lessons. But as a teenager I burned out on the repetition of classical pieces. It wasn’t my music. It was someone else’s. So I studied Economics and didn’t touch the piano for a long time. Then in Paris, the piano gave me a way to make a living. But as an artist I couldn’t express my need to be paid properly for my “art.” And that led to the soul-crushing conflict with my, well, less than ethical employer. Again the piano and music were connected with something painful. You could call this an “energy block” – and it was a two-headed dragon. I needed to create music, but it was painful. I needed to receive money for my musical work, with open hands and without the negative energy I was associating with money. But it was painful to express this need.

The Power of Marshall’s Empathy Was Extraordinary

Through a series of events I ended up interacting with Marshall in the large group and discussing my problem right in front of everyone. Now, the thing about Marshall (who passed away in 2015) was that he developed his powers of empathy to an incredible level. By the time I met him he was traveling to 35 countries each year making peace through nonviolent communication and empathy.

As it turned out, Marshall had the same problem. Neither of us could express our need to receive in exchange for our work. We had grand ideas about contributing to life, to humanity…but when it came to giving and receiving we couldn’t give ourselves empathy and communicate. So here in front of the entire large group we ended up giving each other empathy.

Finally a woman spoke up from the crowd. She made a simple proposal: “Renara just has to tell us how much we should give her for yesterday’s performance!”

Marshall B. Rosenberg

Learning to Give and Receive

I was so ashamed that I wanted to disappear and die. Her words had just touched my deepest fear. I was afraid that if someone paid me for my performance, it would spoil the gift I had offered from the heart. After the woman spoke up I literally heard nothing. I shrunk into myself. What happened next I learned from others.

Marshall proclaimed to the group that in NVC we don’t pay for something. Rather, we contribute to something and make an exchange by giving and receiving. In this way we fulfill our need to contribute to what makes our life more wonderful. Then he took 50 Euros from his own pocket and told the group that if anyone shared his impulse to contribute in gratitude for my performance, they were free to put their own money on the table.

I didn’t watch. I couldn’t look. But everyone made their way to this table and put their own money there. Two people came directly to me and got on their knees. They had to get down very low to make eye contact with me because I was shriveled like a wilted flower. They asked me tenderly “can you accept that?” It was so painful! I still can’t tell this story without breaking down and coming to tears.

A lovely woman stood up and read the declaration by Nelson Mandela about finding the light in ourselves. She sang happy birthday in my honor and everyone joined her. These people, who hardly knew me, were expressing their love to me in every way possible. But the pain body inside me couldn’t open to accept their love. It was time for the workshop to end, and people began to leave. I was paralyzed in my place.

Two NVC trainers put the money in a big envelop and brought it to me. They asked me, “Can you take into consideration our need to contribute to beauty?” And finally, in this energy I could accept it.

I still had a long way to go. I still had to clean out the space inside me which had become full of junk – fear, shame, and memory. But what happened in Strasbourg that July was a major breakthrough. With the help of Marshall’s incredible gift of Presence I was able to go deep inside myself in a way I never had before. It was an intense and accelerate process of self-discovery. I met new people who inspired me with new energy. And then I found the music…

My first album, “Marshall’s Empathy”–click cover art to view/sample album

Then I Created and Recorded My First Compositions

Later that year I made a demo tape of my own interpretations of popular music. But I also included three of my original pieces. “Marshall” was one of those tracks (if you’ve subscribed to my email list you’ve already received that song as a free gift). A great composer named Stelios Damianos discovered this demo and pushed me to create my own full album containing only my original work. He gave me the confidence that I no longer had to hide myself behind the music of other people. I had found my music. By November of 2004, with the financial support of my friends, I had recorded my first album as a composer. I dedicated that album to Marshall Rosenberg. You can learn more about the album “Marshall’s Empathy” and listen to samples of each song here.

I’m eternally grateful to Marshall, who made it possible for me to find and clean the space inside where I would eventually find my music. And that difficult employer? I don’t know where he is but I am ready to kiss his feet in gratitude for being my mirror. For showing me what I had unconsciously created so that I could transform it into something new and beautiful.

The last 14 years have been a continuous transformation. And throughout that time the piano has been my initiator. My teacher. The music is where I meet myself. I hope this comes through in every song I record and every piece I improvise. Since 2004 I’ve recorded over 100 original compositions and performed countless improvisations in 17 countries. But it all started with Marshall, empathy, and a night where I played until my fingers bled.