Anger has a place in the practice room, too. It must be seen as an emotion that is useful to raise up energy to solve a problem of some kind. The anger you feel when you just can’t get something right, helps you to keep trying – if you use it well. I have a 10 year old student, a sweet, lovely little girl, who consistently denies her emotions. It has taken me years to persuade her to admit that she gets angry – sometimes. Unfortunately, you can hear it when she plays – no oomph. But we are making progress! The other day her mother told me that this little girl was practicing something she just couldn’t get right and seeing her frustration, she told her not to get angry. The child’s response was, “But my teacher said I should get angry so I can solve the problem better!” In fact, she did allow herself to get angry and resolved the difficulty she was facing. She will often make a good sound now, too, but it isn’t consistent – yet. As I have observed, a saintly attitude is not always conducive to good violin playing. (Although lots of saints who were known to lose their tempers, surely for saintly reasons.)
In my experience, I have encountered three different reactions students have when they make a mistake or encounter difficulties when they practice:
- The Victim: “Oh, I’m not capable. I’m no good. I will never be any good.” It’s a downward spiral from there and not much gets done.
- The Optimist: “I did that wrong, but what do you expect – I’m not very good. Maybe I won’t make that mistake next time and maybe my teacher won’t notice if I do.” And then tries a few more times half-heartedly. Better, but still very little progress.
- The Tiger: “I’m so mad I think I’ll throw something (not the violin, we hope) – I am so stupid!” Here something may be accomplished but the energy is like a loose cannon.
Of these three types, which is the easiest to teach?
Out there somewhere may be a perfectly balanced student who when confronted with a problem will analyze it carefully and then try and try again until she gets it right. I have never had a student like this – at least not a beginner. I have always had to teach my students how to approach difficulties – even the so-called “big talents.” I get lots of Tigers who, of course, are the easiest to teach. You only have to help them learn how to direct their anger energy away from themselves and toward what they are doing, while you teach them good practice habits. The other two types are more difficult. I teach my students that it is not only okay but is actually a good thing to feel some righteous indignation when they encounter a problem. But this requires them to have faith in themselves, which seems in short supply – especially for the Victim and the Optimist even if they are using their defeatist attitudes as an excuse not to practice. When I am at my wit’s end with these students, I will tell them that if they don’t have faith in themselves, at least have faith that I know what I am doing and know what they are capable of.
If you are succeeding, it starts to go something like this:
- The Victim: “Oh, I still don’t think I’m up to this, but my teacher thinks so and so far she has never been wrong about my abilities. I’ll give it a try.”
- The Optimist: “Well, I made that error, but I have noticed my teacher hears all my mistakes (imagine that!) so I had better do something about it before she goes into action (the old witch). Now what did she tell me to do?”
- The Tiger: “How could I do something so stupid! My teacher says I am much too smart to make such a mistake and that I can fix this if I just apply what she tells me. Now let’s see.”
This is already better. The idea is eventually to bring them all to the Tiger level with perfectly directed energy and practicing habits. Well, that’s what I aim for.
Playing and practicing a musical instrument can teach children something marvelous: that they can take their most negative emotions and transform them into something beautiful and edifying for others. That they can use their emotions instead of being used by them. That the energy from their emotions can be used to help themselves, too, instead of being a destructive force. That even their “bad” emotions can help them to become better musicians.
It says somewhere in the Bible “In your anger, do not sin.” I would add, “ Go and play the violin.”