Do you ever have students who just can’t get a good, intense sound? I have had many of them. Some don’t like a big sound, others don’t seem to have the energy, still others seem to think they are playing only for themselves. I have noticed that what they all have in common is NOT lack of physical energy or talent, but that they deny their emotions, in particular anger. Why anger? Because they are so young they have probably not known many other strong emotions and because in our society, anger is viewed as a negative, something to be avoided or to be controlled if aroused. Is it possible that there is only a negative aspect to it? There must be some evolutionary advantage to anger, otherwise why would all humans experience it?
Anger is an emotion that summons up the energy needed to solve a problem – or get into trouble, depending on how that energy is used. We teachers can help our students use this emotion to find and direct this energy in order to play better.
Energy, lots of it, is needed to make a beautiful, full sound. When I have students who don’t seem to be able to produce such a sound, it is usually because they are not feeling their own energy or are blocking it. The easiest way to help them find this energy, I have found, is via their own emotions. Anger is a ready source of energy, but can our students tap into this source without actually becoming angry? Of course they can. They don’t have to get angry, they have only to remember the physical feeling anger gives them. Given that playing the violin (or any instrument) should teach them to manage and direct their energy, teachers must prompt students to acknowledge their emotions, anger in particular, because doing so will help them access the energy needed to make a strong and expressive sound..
When I have students who produce a tiny sound, I ask them, after trying everything else, “Do you ever get angry?” The answer is almost always, “No.” I find this interesting – I have had students as young as four or five years old who are already denying their emotions. I can hear it in their playing: very little sound and a lack of expression. So I start a quiz; “You never get angry?” “No,” they say. “Not at your sisters and brothers?” “No.” “Your father?” “No.” “Your schoolmates?” “No.” “How about your mother?” At that point they usually break down and admit they get mad at their mothers. I then ask them to describe to me how they feel in their bodies when they get angry. They usually reply, “Angry,” which is a description of their mental state. I ask them again to separate what they are thinking from what they are feeling physically and the answer (which I sometimes have to coax out of them) is usually “really strong – so strong I could push down a wall.” “Ah,”: I reply, “what you are feeling is energy! The energy you are feeling is not positive or negative – what you DO with that energy is, however. If you use it to take your violin and bash it over someone’s head, that is negative. If you use that energy to produce a beautiful sound, then that is positive. The trick is to separate the physical feeling from what you are thinking, remember the energy you feel and use it when you need it without having to relive the anger. Now,” I say, “remember that anger energy and use it to make a really big sound.” They try it and out comes a big fat tone from their violins.
I am sure there are lots of fine musicians with wonderful tone out there who will tell me that they never lose their tempers and are in perfect emotional equilibrium. Good. Some of them are also enormous talents that may not have needed much instruction in these things as they intuitively knew them. However, many music students, even talented ones, may have trouble producing a good sound and need a different type of instruction from, “Do it this way, it sounds better.” We may have to try a more personal approach so that our students can understand that making music is more than just moving our fingers. The best way is to talk about the subject they can most easily relate to – themselves, their problems and their emotions.
Some students are convinced that anger is something that should never be experienced, that good people never get angry. Or they are afraid of what may happen if they allow themselves to feel angry. We teachers must help them understand that anger and other strong emotions are part of being human, that their feelings can be useful to them as musicians, that they can transform their negative emotions into something positive and that this transformation is not only good for them but for anyone who listens to them (or even just casually hears them play). Their violin playing will improve as a result.
End of Part 1. Next anger as a practice tool.