Children are born egocentric, unaware they are not the center of the universe. But part of growing up means becoming aware of your ego and widening the circle around it: learning to think of others and to put their needs first. It means considering the impact that your actions and words have on the rest of the world and doing what’s right because it’s the right thing to do.
But it also means realizing that being a “nice” person can be the most egocentric act of all. Why? Being a good person and doing good deeds can be very ego-gratifying and even addictive, as any saint could tell you. That’s why saints often call themselves miserable sinners – doing good things gives satisfaction which means there is the horrifying possibility that they do the right things for the wrong reason: self gratification. Now most of us are musicians, not saints, so some amount of job satisfaction is right and necessary. Therefore, if doing the right thing for the music, or trying to anyway, makes us feel good, then that’s surely okay. If we give a wonderful performance, fully concentrating on the music, and afterwards the applause encourages and gratifies us, that’s fine, too.
But while saints may see themselves as selfish sinners, kind, shy and gentle people who project these qualities in their playing don’t often see themselves as self-centered. Realizing this, however, can be a big shock for them. For example, I have an 11 year old student who is shy and retiring but also the nicest, sweetest little girl you could ever know. She is always ready to help those around her. She is extremely patient with her younger brother and sister and behaves beautifully in school. What’s wrong with this? Nothing – until she plays the violin. What you see is what you hear – a very shy, sweet and nice 11 year-old with very little sound and a flaccid interpretation. When she plays, she is merely affirming her own self-opinion and confirming to her listener (me, in this case) the image she wants to send the world of herself as nice person. Making a big sound and doing a crescendo to a double forte don’t fit into that image. Or didn’t, I should say.
After wrestling with this for some time, I realized what the problem was – and it was NOT lack of talent, as some teachers might be quick to say. She had locked herself in a cage of self-image, thinking about herself, what pleased her and what projected her niceness to the world. SHE WASN’T THINKING ABOUT THE MUSIC BUT ONLY ABOUT HERSELF AND WHAT MADE HER COMFORTABLE. In short, she was being extremely egocentric, even selfish – her comfort was more important than the music and, even worse, SHE WASN’T AWARE OF IT!
While I can often tell a lot about my students from their playing, when I listen to a really good musician I don’t learn anything about his everyday character or personality. While it’s true that he uses them to transmit the music, what I hear is the music. I will never know if he got out of the wrong side of the bed that day, or fought with his wife, or took a beating on the stock market. And furthermore, I don’t care – and neither does he while he’s playing. If I listen to a recording without knowing or recognizing who the performer is, can I tell if it’s a man or a woman playing? Do I know the artist’s age? Certainly not.
My point is that studying music helps us mature. The emotional and intellectual growth we get from learning to play an instrument can well carry over into the rest of our lives, if we let it. It is our responsibility as teachers to help students come out of themselves, even get past themselves in order to do a greater good – think about something OTHER than themselves or the world in relation to them. We have to help them make the transition from revealing themselves when they play to revealing the music. Not a small task and one fraught with responsibility.
What about the little girl? I stopped her in mid-gavotte and asked her if she wanted to transmit a beautiful piece of music or transmit that she’s a nice little 11 year-old playing it. Didn’t she think that for the listener the music should be more important than the person playing it? Naturally she said that I should be hearing a beautiful piece of music and not the performer. I then very matter of factly informed her that she was only transmitting herself and should think about this – that she had to start thinking about what’s good for the music and NOT what’s good for her. This upset her a little as she had never thought of herself as being egocentric or self-centered. A week later she came back with a big sound and a lovely vibrato. I would like to say that she has liberated herself from the prison of her personality – I doubt that any of us ever really can – but at least she has widened the circle around her so that she is doing something wonderful for others and not just for herself. Now that she sees playing music as an act of generosity. it has become easier for her to give of herself. Yes, playing with a big sound and expression now fits into her self-image as a nice person, but she is also becoming aware that true selflessness and forgetting about oneself can come through music. She’s growing up.
Post Author: Eloise Hellyer