This ties in both with a blog post on Violin Teacher’s Blog and with that 14-year-old who pushed her voice and used a microphone to sing “O Mio Babbino Caro” in America’s talent competition.
It concerns child prodigies, people who think they are child prodigies and the people behind them, living vicariously through your children or students and creating both egomaniacs and narcissists via overblowing “talent”.
The most important question I’d like to raise in this context is this:
What does all this have to do with music?
Personally I hate competitions, music exams etc, anything that feeds into the competitive character of young musicians and their parents (not of music).
Music itself is innocent. Music is the oldest language, the language of undiluted emotion-without-words. Music is a portal to a better world where daily worries don’t exist and only pure emotions do. By “pure” I don’t mean only the happy ones; grief can be pure, heartbreak can be pure, and music expresses it purely. Dissonances can introduce the conflict we feel when we are torn between forces…
… but you see: Nothing, absolutely nothing in this ethereal world of pure emotion exists that will say, “I’m better than you”. That is not the function of music. Music does not exist to be a measuring system or a filtering system “you, yes; no, not you”. Music is universal.
The function of the musician
is to open that portal. For himself and the listener. The function of the musician is to transport the listener into that place where the real world disappears. To “go there”. The Pied Piper leads the way; the children, lost to the world, follow, entranced. The Pied Piper is no less in a musical trance than the children; yet he creates it while experiencing it.
Now, can you imagine one of those kids pulling a pennywhistle out of their pocket and starting up a competitive tune with the Piper? What is the result? Instantly, the trance is broken for everyone around them, and a power struggle ensues (though I guess, more likely the Piper would simply pack in his instrument and disappear, leaving the kid to struggle alone).
The healing properties of music
I’ll get a bit philosophical here: I believe it is the musical trance one enters while focusing completely on the beauty of the music, including its execution (sound production, intonation etc), that is so powerfully healing.
It could be that the actual frequencies of music straighten out disturbed frequencies in one’s brain (or to get “ethereal” about it, in one’s aura). If you’re into “vibrational medicine”, you’ll quickly see how perfect harmonies can align what was misaligned. But even if you believe that vibrational healing is voodoo, still the fact remains that sound waves have physical properties (frequency, intensity) which have physical effects in a body on a molecular level.
Then again, perhaps it is the absence of something else while immersing oneself in music, that heals. In those ten or thirty minutes, you’re not focused on those worries and life stresses that are eating you alive the rest of the time. Just giving yourself that break (similar to meditation, and music is meditation) may be the key thing that does the healing.
Sometimes I get a student in a lesson who is so consumed with worry about something that I need to sit them down and urge them to take that break.
I explain to them that this is their special time with music, and that nothing can take it away from them. I suggest they leave the worries to take care of themselves for only half an hour. If they manage this, usually the worry has also diminished and they know what to do.
The function of the teacher
A very sacred duty has been given into our (teachers’) hands: To teach a young musician to open that portal, to find the entrance to that world called music.
There is no mechanical approach. Of course we have to teach the mechanics behind handling the instrument; but are we teaching the kids to saw a bow across a string, or are we teaching them music?
One of my earliest mentors for teaching, a highly experienced and well-established clarinet teacher, instilled this in me. It is not about the student, or the teacher, or the parent, or the exam: It is about the music.
Am I teaching the music or the child? Actually, I’m teaching the child music. I’m not teaching the child psychology or how to deal with ego; I’m teaching the child how to open that portal and go into that magical land where nothing matters except the music. Pied Piper Land.
All technical studies, everything about the instrument is merely a means to an end. The focus needs to remain on the end result. Lose sight of that and you’ve lost your way.
This is why the energy behind the music is so important.
Egomania in action
A little anecdote. In the early days of the studio there was a little girl who came to me for remedial violin, to help with a speech impediment. For various years we made excellent progress, as she was a fast learner and practised diligently. We had a lot of fun and explored the realm of music. And then, one day, the parents got ambitious and insisted on her playing an exam, “for the paper”. Ambition piled upon more ambition: Suddenly just playing an exam wasn’t enough, it had to be a distinction. (Any music teacher can tell you that’s nonsense. You can’t “order” a distinction from a child.) Long story short, coasting dangerously close to a nervous breakdown, this little girl played this exam; didn’t get her distinction (still passed well despite the nerves); her teacher was fired in favour of a “better teacher”, and I lost sight of her. I presume she then went from teacher to teacher looking for that ultimate teacher.
Many years later I heard her during a youth performance (she played quite well); and she gave a speech at the end. The speech brought tears to my eyes. Not tears of joy. Tears of despair, of how this child’s perception of music had forever been corrupted.
All the speech was about, was on how important it was to be the Best.
To be the best.
Nothing about the meaning of music. Nothing about the way music can unite people (“Alle Menschen werden Brueder” – Beethoven); nothing about how it is the oldest language that stirs things in us that cannot be expressed in words. Nothing about how music has the power to change nations, to change the world; nothing about how music, by its very physics, is a healing force the ancient Greeks already acknowledged (spherical geometry tied in closely with musical intervals). Not even, Glory to God for our talents (the line another young player took). Nothing; nothing. Only:
How one has to be The Best.
I’m sorry. Mozart would have laughed at her. Mozart, aged 6, taught himself violin. The best? Excuse me, do we even have one such person on the planet today? And can this poor deluded young violinist compare herself to even today’s greats; David Garret; Martha Abrahams? Can she even stand up and compare herself to an ordinary versed professional orchestra violinist? The Best? Dear child, what has been done to you??
Talent is only a potential.
A potential for unlocking that portal. You wouldn’t stand up and crow conceitedly: “I’m the holder of the keys!” if you understood that this is what talent really is. “Look at me!! I have the keys!” The keys to what? “I don’t really know, but I have a lot of them! I’m so special!”
People who make it all about themselves and their performance have lost the way.
Does a great musician deserve to enjoy the applause? Of course! She worked hard for that applause. Applause is the gift of the audience to the player, after the player has given the audience the gift of a wonderful experience in music. It is the natural exchange of energies.
But if that’s all the soloist is playing for, she needs to reevaluate the meaning of life. Why bother with music? Music is hard work, there are easier paths to fame! Why not instead do something mind-boggling – walk through the streets without clothes on, and harvest instant fame?
(Note the difference between “musician” and “soloist”: Musician – a maker of music. Soloist: An “aloneist”. The ego is embedded in the word. Many teachers, including me, maintain that a player isn’t a complete musician before he can also accompany well.)
How to deflate an inflated ego
Luckily (or unluckily, depending how you see it) there is a path to deflate an overinflated ego.
The path is called failure. Failure to get applause. Failure to even get that solo position. Failure to attain the fame you built your entire ego around. Emergency intervention for every egomaniac who falsely believes they are the best, should include a total cold-shoulder from the world for an extended period.
That is like waking up from a trance. The dream was great, but here’s reality: While others were quietly, solidly, following their own life goals, stepwise studying and practising mundane professions and becoming really good at them, you were flitting from one gig to the next in the forever-hope that gigs will get more and better paid. And then the gigs stop coming. Nobody is interested in you anymore. You’re not the youngest talented baby on the block anymore; someone younger ousts you from that position. Your music, that has been neglected in favour of ego, is not powerful enough to stand on its own and actually entrance people, open that portal for them; that wasn’t your focus.
And you realize that you’ve done nothing else. That aside from self-worship, your life has no content.
This experience will be followed by an existential crisis; followed, hopefully, by a resetting of goals, giving up on grandiosity, and starting the first little steps towards a genuine life.
Because only people who can lose themselves entirely in music, who can lose sight of not only their ego but their very identity, who can disappear into the magic realm, can really become musicians. If you’re an egomaniac who plays for admiration only, it’s not for you.
There’s a novel in here somewhere. Wait…