Widening the Circle

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

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1 September 2015

8 thoughts on “Widening the Circle

  1. OGU

    I was surprised how subtle your argument was here however I think expansion of awareness is a major motivation for children’s music. Adults that haven’t learned how to listen to simultaneous streams of tone are typically not good musicians. Music isn’t about silence, after-all the audience is silent, rather it is about what is created and when. If children don’t learn this correctly they will likely never catch on as adults.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      I’ll bet you thought I was kidding when you saw my little “synopsis” of this post! You’re absolutely right – the expansion of awareness (nice phrase, by the way – congratulations, maybe I’ll steal-er -use it) is one of the main reasons to study music. Of course there are also lots of others which I have already covered and will try to cover in past and future posts. It’s such a vast subject!!

      Thank you for your comment.

  2. Virgil T. Morant

    Now, you reassure me in conversations elsewhere that you don’t want to tread much into regions outside of music (which might tempt some sad soul such as myself), and then here you go and start off by talking about the psychology of babies and, worse yet, the lives of saints. You dangle these things before me like, oh, I don’t know, a string before a cat. In spite of your assurances, no less.

    In any case and more seriously, I will add that I think there is much to be said for a musician drawing upon his or her own experience too. You focus mostly on transcending that, but I am glad anyway that you mentioned that the girl’s problem was that she was focusing on herself towards the purpose of making herself comfortable (a point you were kind enough too to put in all caps). I myself remember well from my own long ago days as a musician that channeling this experience or that—referring here of course to experiences all my own—could bring no small benefit to my performance. And, as you also note, no one needed to be the wiser (about whether I lost money on the stock market crash or what-have-you). Nevertheless, life’s experience can be useful. Perhaps this is less so for all but the most traumatized of children.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Of course life experience is useful to help your interpretation but you are supposed to use the experiences just as you use your personality to transmit them. In other words, the personality is a tool, as are our experiences and emotions, and if we are used by our personalities, instead of vice versa, that’s when we run into trouble. Children, and many adults, are often prey to their own personalities and it is the job of music, and thus music teachers, to loosen the strong hold their personalities have on them so they can think of something other than themselves and do what’s right for the situation at hand.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. Throwcase

    Great article.
    Every time I perform badly, it’s because my ego took over and got in the way. Every time I perform well, it’s because I’ve been able to focus ln the music more than myself.
    Your ears don’t have an ego, after all…

    Another irony is that shyness is essentially egotistical; it presumes that others are going to care what you do.

  4. Eloise Hellyer Post author

    My point exactly!! You are going to go far, young man – in music, I mean.. Just hope you stay “up over!” I bet you’ll be a good teacher, too, if you’re not already.

    Thanks for your comment.


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