The Personality Prison

“Well, that’s his personality, so what can you do?”

This was the end of a recent conversation I had with another violin teacher about a student we share (he’s in a music program in her high school) whose bow arm I am trying to loosen up, a student who tenses up needlessly whenever he thinks something might be difficult, whether it is or not.

What was my answer to this question? First of all it wasn’t a real question she posed –  it was a rhetorical question, meaning that she didn’t expect an answer: it’s a fact and that’s that. So my response was to mutter some nicety and hang up as quickly as possible.


She would be perfectly happy to leave this student in the prison of his personality.

I, however, am not. Here is what I would have also told her if I had thought for one nanosecond that she would have listened……

What Personality Is and What You Do With It

Notice I didn’t say what it does with you.

Reflect for a moment on the original meaning of the word “person” which comes to us through Latin, possibly from Etruscan: it meant “actor’s mask.” Personality is what activates this mask. Therefore, personality is a tool we use to deal with the everyday world. It’s what we present to the world. It’s what likes and dislikes things. It’s what exhibits everyday emotion. It is the most superficial part of us that is most apparent but it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, confused with our character, soul, animus, true nature, etc., which is what manifests art. The problem is that we tend to identify with our personality and think anything that it manifests is our “real” selves. Why? Because it makes the most noise and therefore gets the most attention. But consider this example: if you look at the sea, you may see great crashing waves on the surface – but it can be very calm below. Which one of these is the real sea? Where do all marine creatures live? What you see, therefore, is not necessarily what is. What is most obvious and makes the most noise can be so much smoke in your eyes, obscuring another reality. Look at personality as the great crashing waves which is what gets our attention and character being the deep calm underneath (where all the fascinating creatures live) which is what uses the personality, not vice versa, to transmit art.

Sometimes personality can be very commanding and therein lies the problem: it’s extremely useful for a musician to have a strong personality in order to get up and perform in public, just as it is useful to a teacher. In a way, it’s a sort of paradox – the very quality that is extremely useful to us to play and to teach is often the very quality that can get in the way of these activities – or having a relaxed bow arm in the case of my student. How to get past this?

First of all, as teachers, we must realize that we are not our personalities. Stop and think: when do you feel you are really your real self? What is that real self? A famous mezzo-soprano once told me that she feels she is really herself when she is performing. That’s a rather profound statement. She is also a wife, mother and teacher – and undoubtedly good at all of these. But she feels she is her real self when she is transmitting music, using her personality and emotions to create art which transcends her everyday self.

As pointed out elsewhere in other articles in this blog, if you listen to a recording of a performer without knowing who it is, can you tell anything about that musician’s personality from the recording? I would wager that you cannot. You will not know that person’s sex, sexual orientation, nationality, age, personality type (introverted or extraverted), if that person is in a good or bad mood or indeed anything else about that person’s everyday self – or even if he (presuming it is a “he”) likes the piece he’s playing. You do know a lot about the music, though. You also know the effect that that transmission has on you, depending on from what level you are listening: looking for mistakes, “correct” interpretation, good instrumental technique or just receiving what the performer is trying to give you.

So the first step is to realize when you are your “real self,” which often has nothing to do with the “you” that goes to the grocery store, and become aware of it.

The second step is to make your students aware of it, too. I have often found that sometimes my job means getting parents to understand that they don’t really know their own children as well as they had thought. How many times have students whose parents considered them to be hopelessly timid and introverted, suddenly started to whack out a big fat sound with gusto? How many times have students become expressive when their parents (and indeed the students themselves) were convinced this was not possible? All because these kids have realized that they don’t have to be trapped inside their personalities, inside a mask. That music gives them the chance to express the whole range of human emotion (and even I am often surprised how much children know about this), while revealing nothing about their personal everyday selves – often a real worry for self-conscious adolescents.

Our job is often to help our students to find a way to get out of themselves, to escape from the prison that their personalities can be. To help our students tap into their creativity via concentration. To help them realize that they are not their egos or personalities. To accede to the mystery that is art, no matter on how small a scale. To show them that other aspects of themselves exist that they never dreamed of way down deep underneath those crashing waves of the personality. They may return immediately to being their everyday selves, which has now become an option for them, but they know that there is something more. – something they can get to whenever they want. All they have to do is pick up their instruments.

So yes, I am going to help that young man loosen up his bow arm if it’s the last bit of teaching I do on this earth. I will not shrug my shoulders and leave him unable to accede to the mystery and beauty of making music because he has the “wrong” personality. All of our students deserve the chance to cast off the shackles of superficiality and dive way down deep to find their real selves.

If you think of it, that’s really why, aware of it or not, they come to us for lessons in the first place.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer Registered & Protected  MSSU-D6QY-TKLN-JYT7

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5 December 2017

2 thoughts on “The Personality Prison

  1. Tarmo Riutta

    Great post! Philosofer Slavoj Zizek says that when we are looking at someone, we are actually looking at a picture. Then we tell a story about of that picture to ourselves.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thanks for your comment – I agree totally. The difference between music teachers and other teachers generally, is that we have the moral obligation to help our students understand this, don’t you think?


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