I was trying to remember where I heard this story and I finally found it. It’s from Warrior King of Shambhala by Jeremy Hayward.
During Rinpoche’s visit to New York, an event occurred which is a beautiful illustration of Rinpoche’s use of humor to break through to the heart of his students. Madeline Bruser, a talented young concert pianist and piano teacher, was already a student of Rinpoche, though she had not yet met him. Madeline tells this story of the first time she met him:
I had offered to play for him during his stay in New York and he accepted. So, one evening, I went to his suite, where about a dozen of us were gathered. When he entered the room, I felt so relaxed in his presence that I walked right up to him and said, “Hello, I’m going to play for you tonight.” And he said, “Oh! You’re going to play with me!” After several minutes of silence punctuated by a few bits of conversation between him and all of us, he walked slowly over to the piano, sat down, and started slapping at the keys as though it were a big joke. I began to feel quite nervous. Then he said, “Now YOU play,” and he stood up. I sat down at the piano, but he remained standing. Aren’t you going to sit down?” I asked him. And instead of sitting down, he picked up his little dog and stood next to the piano, waiting for me to begin. Since he was standing, everyone else had to stand also.
I launched into a dramatic performance of Beethoven’s deeply serious “Sonata in A-flat,” Opus 110. The lid of the piano was slightly raised, and soon after I started to play, Rinpoche put his dog—a very cooperative and furry lhasa apso—on the piano. Over and over, the dog slowly slid down the slanted lid as I continued to huff and puff my way through Beethoven’s intense, lofty, lyrical first movement. At times, instead of putting the dog back onto the piano, Rinpoche beat the time with one hand, making more of a joke out of the music. The twelve guests giggled, and I felt humiliated yet exhilarated. At one moment I tried to challenge him by looking directly and boldly at him, but he just peered over his glasses at me and left me feeling completely powerless.
Suddenly, a minute or so into the rollicking second movement, something switched. I found myself playing with an amazing freedom and energy that I’d never known was possible. The music leapt out of me and burst brilliantly into the room like a force of nature. It was tremendously liberating, and I noticed that Rinpoche was now holding his dog and listening attentively. I played with this total abandon for about two minutes, but it was so disorienting that I reverted back to my habitual overblown approach, and Rinpoche gave the dog more rides down the piano lid. Thus went a twenty-minute performance of one of the most profound pieces of music ever written. Beethoven and I had come into contact with an enlightened audience. The next day, I could no longer play the old way. I had received the best piano lesson of my life from a man who never played the instrument.