Mind, Body and Don’t Forget Soul

“I would love ideas about how to take an advanced player who plays “mechanically” and get her to “feel” the music a bit more?  I should add that she does tons of dynamics and plays very aggressively. It just doesn’t come off in a natural, organic way. It feels canned.”

This was a great question on a web site and, I fear, is a very common problem. Instead of thinking how to get students to play expressively, I often find I first have to deal with what blocks them from doing it.

For me, the point of playing music is to live where you don’t. In my way of seeing things, a human being has three components: physical, mental and emotional. Very few activities I can think of require us to use all three of these components to the highest level at the same time. Music does. Playing music expressively makes us feel like whole human beings and is a wonderful experience – one reason why some students are willing to practice many hours a day. Most of us tend to identify with one aspect more than the other two. The teachers therefore have to modify their approach according to where their students tend to spend most of their time.  My explanations to children who live in their intellect, for example, are often quite different from those to students who live primarily in their bodies (some of my students are serious dancers or athletes).

The student mentioned above has no doubt thought out everything – dynamics, phrasing, fingering, bowing, etc. But she just can’t let herself live in the other parts of herself. You can hear her thinking when she plays and that is what is bothering her teacher. Students who are stuck in their heads (which society generally praises, values and promotes), are not aware that there is more to themselves than what is going on in their heads or their bodies.

How to approach students who may even be afraid of what they can’t see or think through?  You talk to them. They need explanations, intellectual ones. You can give all kinds of musical examples to students like this but it will mean nothing to them unless you try to explain the mystery that is music and help them have an intellectual insight. This way you give them an approach they can understand to help them accede to the other aspects of themselves.

The way we teach music is often just like sending a child to house of worship, teaching him to pray without ever telling him there is a God – if she has “talent” she’ll figure it out on her own! Obviously, those who give their children a religious education, talk about God from the beginning of their children’s lives. Why should we not talk about the spiritual aspects of making music when needed? I often tell my students that playing music is another form of prayer or meditation, a manipulation of subtle energy. Music is about transcendence, trusting our minds and bodies to do the job they have been trained for so we can free our spirits to express something more. It is not thinking only about ourselves or how we are going to put our definitive stamp on the music. So far, I fear that the student mentioned above thinks she is just the sum of her body and her mind.

There are other factors that sometimes block students from expressing themselves musically.  Here is a list of a few of them:

  1. Denying their emotions. I have had children as young as four insist that they never get angry. Really. It’s quite shocking, when you think of it. This means that either they have no emotions at all or deny to themselves that they have them. What do I do? I find something that the child agrees will make him angry. Then I tell his to express that anger in his playing. From there it’s easy to go to other emotions.
  2. Lack of proper technique: it is impossible to play in tune without a good left-hand technique and musically without good right hand technique. If children don’t like what they hear, the only thing they will transmit is “let me get this over with as soon as possible.” You never hear great musical expression from someone with no technique – not on the violin, anyway.
  3. Thinking that they are playing only for themselves. To be expressive so that others perceive it, one must exaggerate. Or it seems like exaggeration anyway, until you get used to it. I tell my students that they don’t play for themselves or for whoever is in the neighborhood, but are launching energy and expression into the air. Don’t they want to send out beauty and positivity?
  4. Thinking they aren’t capable of playing musically. This is where I have to keep giving examples of expressive playing and make them note what I am doing with my bow arm and that, contrary to what they might think, I am not a genius. If I can do it, they can, too.
  5. Being self conscious. Their personalities tend toward the timid side and their playing shows it. They are afraid to call attention to themselves. So I explain to them that we aren’t interested in hearing their everyday personalities – we want to hear something eternal and universal which they can only accomplish by thinking of the music instead of themselves. The more they think about the music, the more we know about the music and nothing about their everyday selves. What seems to them as exaggeration actually has the opposite effect by calling attention to the music instead of themselves.
  6. Being afraid to make a mistake. Nothing ventured, nothing gained! You have to be sure of yourself even when you make a mistake. Most mistakes go unnoticed but everyone notices wooden playing even if it is “perfect.”
  7. Not knowing what they want to hear. I often tell my students that you can have the best instrumental technique and still sound disgusting. Why? If you don’t know what you want to hear, how can you obtain it?
  8. Liking to hear noise instead of music. I get this a lot from little boys especially. They sometimes get addicted to the staccato bowing they learn at the beginning and it may take a bit of convincing to wean them off it and consider other possibilities.
  9. They have turned their ears off. Sometimes if children don’t like what they hear, they stop listening to themselves, making it impossible to practice well. In extreme cases, I will ask these students (usually adolescents and always transfer students) to make a recording of themselves and listen to it. This is drastic medicine, but usually does the trick.
  10. They speak in a monotone and their playing reflects it. This is often just a familial habit so I ask them to modulate their voices when speaking to me and to visualize the musical phrases in the same way. I also ask them to sing and even join a choir when possible.

The biggest problem is that we teachers may not be talking enough to our students. After all, if it were easy to learn to be expressive, the only thing we would have to do is show students great recordings or take them to concerts. Some students have a natural bent for expressive playing and we say they have talent. Other students have to be shown the way, to be “talked into it.”  They are not less talented but need different kinds of teaching. This is what makes our job not only interesting but a lot more rewarding than many might think. Helping a soul find its expression must be one of the best jobs on the planet.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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12 July 2017

5 thoughts on “Mind, Body and Don’t Forget Soul

  1. Britcellist

    I disagree with #1. Emotions should come from the music one is playing, not because a teacher has made you angry. Emotions come about from playing the instrument (is the sound gorgeous or what?) the music (is it melodic and singing, or dramatic, as some examples?) and the feeling of the sound you produce to make the notes musical. It’s all internal. If a student is not naturally musical or hasn’t been exposed to musical playing, the teacher has to incorporate that when teaching pieces. Provide a wide range of pieces to demonstrate happy, sad, fierce, gentle etc, so that the student feels the different emotions in each piece. Asking them to tell you the story they get from each piece helps in their imagination.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thank you so much for your comment. I agree with everything you say and of course I do it this way, too. But what happens when it doesn’t work? That is what I was addressing in this post. I was answering a teacher who had tried everything to get her very advanced student to play musically and authentically and was getting nowhere. The fact that she posted the question on the internet to a violin teacher community should say something about the level of her desperation (and courage and dedication)! I would like to clarify one thing: I didn’t say I get my students angry, I just said that the student and I find something that they agree would make them angry which sometimes takes a bit of discussion. Often children who deny their emotions will only readily recognize anger (when prodded) and the energy you feel from anger is very easy to transmit with the instrument. From there, we go to other emotions. Demonstrations, exposure to musical playing, etc., are worth nothing to a child who denies his own emotions. You can’t express an emotion you don’t think you feel. So recognizing the emotion is first and then we can do all the steps you suggest. I think that all of us are naturally musical, the teacher just has to find the key. I was trying to help out teachers with really difficult cases. I have had quite a few in my long career and the satisfaction that I have gotten from helping them is enormous. Thank you again for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and heartfelt comment. I really appreciate it.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thank you for going to the trouble of writing and for your kind comment!


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